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When Tragedy Strikes

When Tragedy Strikes – the Emotional Consequences of Trauma

“We wouldn’t have picked up such speed if it hadn’t warmed up earlier in the day causing the snow to melt and later ice over.  The snowmobile was traveling much quicker down the hill than usual and we lost control close to the bottom.  It happened all so fast.  Donald didn’t see the oncoming snowmobile until it was too late.  I was thrown off and into a snow bank resulting in a broken arm, cuts and bruising.  Donald held on and was hit head on; he almost didn’t make it and was near death when the ambulance arrived … he recovered only after many months of painful treatment …”

Account from Julia, Donald’s spouse who was riding on the back of the snowmobile at the time of the accident.

We never know when tragedy will hit.  What we do know is that there is an emotional impact that comes with trauma that may be as painful or more than the physical injury.  After the accident, Julia recognized that Donald seemed to recover from his physical injuries and was smiling and joking from his hospital bed within several weeks.  In comparison, Julia had few physical injuries but seemed plagued by an emotional burden that she couldn’t shake.  Approximately 25% (Yehuda, et al, 1994) of trauma survivors develop either Acute Stress Disorder (maximum 4 weeks post-trauma) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (minimum 3 months in duration) following the incident.

Prior to the incident Julia enjoyed a close relationship with Donald; great success in her career; had many friends; was involved in many social activities; volunteered in her community and was close to her family.  Julia was well adjusted by all accounts.  Her response to an extreme stressor was a “common reaction to an abnormally disturbing event.”  After the accident, she no longer wanted to visit friends; constantly felt on alert and anxious; experienced debilitating distress when getting into a vehicle; and was certain that her life was in danger, long after the accident was over.

Extreme stressors such as the one described above can result in symptoms that last for many months and even years after the event.  Both trauma survivors and professional care-providers need to be aware of the emotional aspects related to trauma in order to remove the stigma of emotional response and promote recovery.

Professional health care providers may encounter a wide variety of client/patient trauma during the course of their work.  This may include survivors of motor vehicle accidents, victims of violence, survivors of serious illness or injury and many others.  Accurate recognition of the signs/symptoms of post-trauma distress can lead to correct and timely assessment and referrals.

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