Family members may not quietly and peacefully accept what has happened...Family members have no choice--they must cooperate with the media, the police and sometimes the courts.
E.K. Rynearson, MD Virginia Mason Medial Center
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What Is PTSD? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
by Connie Saindon, MA, MFT Founder: Survivors of Violent Loss Program
In World War I, they called it shell shock. In World War II they called it battle fatigue. Now it's known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Many Vietnam veterans experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptoms were demonstrated in several films depicting the Vietnam War - vets waking up in the middle of the night with flashbacks, blocking out memories, and refusing to discuss the details of their wartime experiences.
Many of us are familiar with similar experiences such as the startle response and sleep difficulties. War has taught us a great deal about the effects of trauma on adults and we’re still learning about the effects of Desert Storm and the current war in Iraq.
Through 24-hour news programming, we have constant exposure to violent events worldwide. Many military families are glued to the TV, unable to stop themselves from watching the violence in Iraq; hoping to hear about their loved ones. We need to understand the effects of this close-up coverage on real lives and families.
In addition to comprehending war trauma, we are also learning a great deal about the effects of trauma on children, and adults who had traumatic experiences during childhood. Very frequently, those affected need treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Trauma is an event that is outside the range of usual human experience and would be distressing to most of us. It can be experiencing, as well as witnessing, violence, especially to one's loved ones. The trauma can either be a physical threat or a threat to one's integrity. Examples are: The sudden destruction on one's home, witnessing a serious accident, or being a victim of an act of violence. A person will become more traumatized to the degree he or she feels helpless during the event(s).
After a traumatic event, "fear of further fear" can emerge, says Lenore Terr, M.D. in Too Scared To Cry. This is frequently why some sexually abused children tend not to talk about their abuse while it's happening. Human beings are like animals in that when frightened they prepare for fight or flight, but often can't move.
Massive denial and numbing may affect children subjected to continual horrifying incidents at home. When abuse becomes a predictable event, then psychic numbing may be the result. A child with numbing may be polite yet have difficulty opening up. Psychic numbing may be the result. This numbness may become a way of life, in a place beyond expression, beyond feeling. These children look at life through absent eyes. Also, their sense of time may go awry. When wonderful things happen, time is too short. When bad things happen, minutes can feel like hours. People who have experienced trauma can have their sense of the future destroyed and may live only in the here and now.
Tori Amos' song "Me and A Gun" on her Earthquakes release album captures how she coped while being raped. Her ability to put her mind elsewhere helped her survive her ordeal.
Dr. Terr suggests that adults who have experienced trauma tend to deny their feelings and have interruptive flashbacks. Children do not tend to have flashbacks but they may have daydreams, and we may see no problems with their schoolwork or activities.
An important indicator for identifying someone who has been traumatized is a major change in personality after the event. Someone maybe quieter, bossier, or more immature after a trauma. They are different in some way.
Unresolved trauma also tends to reappear in the form of reenactments. In Stephen King's movie "Stand By Me" there were three incidents regarding trains. The first was the adventures of three pre-pubescent boys searching for the body of a boy hit by a train. A second incident showed boys fooling around on the tracks and almost being hit by an oncoming train. The third incident showed one of the boys getting stuck on the track and, again almost being hit by an oncoming train. Dr. Terr reports that at about age five Stephen King witnessed the death of a childhood playmate that was hit by a train. "Stand By Me" may be a post-traumatic re-enactment for Stephen King.
One of my clients now realizes why she suffered from migraines when others would help her in the kitchen. She was re-living a childhood incident of physical violence that resulted in a severe cut needing several stitches. Another woman found that the smell of sage evoked memories of her rape. This became clearly evident when applying for a job in a rural town where sagebrush was plentiful.
Traumatic events can drastically alter one's personality and way of living. People who do the healing work realize that, later in life, with the right circumstances, they may have to deal with issues that resurface from the trauma. The effect of trauma never ends: Each of us will deal with the symptoms and effects of trauma according to our own timetable. In another article I will address the strengths that emerge from the experience of trauma or hardship.
This brief article cannot provide a comprehensive description of this area. It is only one of many articles that provide a voice to survivors of trauma. The answers will come from clinicians, researchers, and survivors. Let us know what you did to help yourself so that we can pass on our collective wisdom and help one another. Trauma long past can still controls more of our lives than we wish. We will continue to discuss this topic and look forward to your input as well. Let us hear from you.
Connie Saindon, M.A., MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Traumatic Grief Specialist. She is the founder of the Survivors of Violent Loss Program and provides training/supervision and consultation. She can be reached at CSaindon@san.rr.com.