A TORNADO, A DOWNTOWN SHOOTING, AND AN AUTO ACCIDENT:
What do they all have in common?
Donald A. Price, Ph.D. and Linda M. Price, Ph.D.
All three of these extreme events can cause those who experience or witness them to suffer the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At first the people who are most closely involved may experience a general numbing -- they don't feel much of anything. It is as if they are in a state of shock, and have no awareness of any emotions, and may even feel like they are outside of themselves watching life happen. Parts of the event may even be temporarily forgotten. But then, as time goes on, they may experience overwhelming feelings of fear, helplessness, anxiety, and depression.
As the pendulum swings away from the numbed out feeling, a trauma survivor may experience recurrent and intrusive vivid images, thoughts and recollections about the event (a driver of a car may relive a crash in slow motion). Recurrent vivid nightmares of the shooting at the LDS Church Historical Building were not uncommon for those present. Others might act or feel as if the event were currently going on (as in a "flashback") in reaction to internal or external cues or triggers that are associated with the trauma (for example, after the recent tornado, strong winds or dark clouds can trigger fear or anxiety for a survivor.) This can lead to a tendency to avoid any thing to do with the traumatic event (the person avoids reading the paper, or watching television) as a way of coping.
Trauma victims may have difficulty falling or staying asleep, may experience outbursts of anger, or hyper vigilance and an exaggerated startle response. These are just some of the many troubling aftermath symptoms that can surface for trauma survivors. Most of us have heard stories of Vietnam Veterans reacting to the sound of a helicopter that takes them back in time. Much of what we know about PTSD comes from the thorough studies of these veterans. As these studies were being conducted, it became clear that many more people than we ever realized suffer a variety of traumas in our society, and experience many of the same intense symptoms.
What can help to get through or over this? Time itself helps, but there are several things that can help people to work through and leave behind these awful experiences. 1) Talking about it with understanding people. Trauma survivors need to talk about their experiences for some time with a number of people. They may need to talk about it over and over for awhile. They need to feel understood, that someone gets how bad it felt. Most importantly, trauma survivors need to talk about the feelings that were experienced. Until the feelings are acknowledged and experienced and processed they can continue to affect and influence the person's life. 2) Writing about it. Both talking and writing help to "get it outside the mind" so it doesn't keep replaying. Drawing pictures of the event can help as well. 3) As soon as possible the person needs to get back to doing what they need to do (e.g., driving after an accident). Staying isolated too long reinforces fears and the feelings of helplessness. 4) Taking note of their power in other areas of life that offset these traumatic feelings of powerlessness. The biggest danger is generalizing the sense of powerlessness to other areas of life. So, acknowledging that this feeling is from this event at this time, and it is not forever, not in all cases or all situations is important to put it in perspective. 5. Hypnotherapy with a trained mental health professional can often alleviate residual and un-integrated emotions.