One of the most famous pictures to grace the cover of the magazine National Geographic was printed in the mid 1980s and is of an Afghan girl with green eyes, exhibiting a stare that appears to look right past the camera, into some unknown and bleak future. The lack of emotion, and the look in the eyes that seems to see far away into the distance is called the thousand-yard stare, and it is a noted phenomenon of those people who have experienced tremendous stress and difficulty. It is often thought a harbinger or precursor to post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), and other people view it as a symptom of acute stress disorder. It’s frequently associated with soldiers presently or recently in combat, and the term, initially coined as the two thousand yard stare, was descriptive of pictures of World War II marines, that appeared in Life magazine.
From a medical standpoint, the thousand-yard stare represents that a person has experienced such significant trauma that they have had to dissociate or disconnect from the world or from other people. By going numb, by not feeling, they may still be functional in their environment. This is true of many people, like members of the armed forces, who are still in the midst of combat or traumatic situations. Given time away from these situations, some people might begin to come back to reality without assistance, but many more may need help fully re-engaging in life and ending dissociation. While they have this look, they may be diagnosed with having acute stress disorder or shock. The stare may also be indicative of PTSD already occurring, and anyone with either of these conditions is best treated with psychological support.
With the thousand-yard stare may come a variety of other symptoms of conditions like PTSD. These could include reliving trauma, sleep disturbances, tendency toward substance abuse, erratic moods, panic or anxiety attacks, and others. It can take a while for someone who has this look to lose it. It should be noted that the thousand-yard stare is certainly not unique to soldiers. Anyone experiencing significant trauma from incidences like violent attack, natural disaster, constant danger or phenomenal loss may begin to manifest acute stress disorder or PTSD.
For the purposes of diagnosis, the thousand-yard stare may be useful in assessing those who have suffered great trauma. It may say the degree to which the person is “tuning out” or dissociating from reality. It’s also relatively easy for medical laypeople to recognize, which may be of help in getting people interventional support and care, should they require it.