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By Dr. Lawana R. Lofton, PsyD –

On July 20, 2012, James Holmes, 24 year old, University of Colorado, PhD Neuroscience Candidate, unleashed an arsenal of assault firearms into a midnight showing of the movie “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado. To date, 12 fatalities and 58 wounded are reported.  Movie attendees have described the scene as chaotic, and terrifying, as they dropped to the floor in the crowded theatre to escape gunfire. Several stated they had to crawl over and round the wounded just to save themselves from active gunfire.

If you, a loved one in your relationship, or know someone who is impacted by the fatalities and injured in Aurora, Colorado, it is recommended for the first 24-hours to not force someone to tell their story. Rather if they want a shoulder to cry on, someone to empathize with about how horrible the shooting was, or just to have someone available and present for support, is sufficient.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating Psychological Anxiety Disorder triggered by exposure to a traumatic experience. It is more concretely, a traumatic memory which has the potential to “get stuck” or fixed, in our emotional hard wiring of memories the more it is rehearsed, and regrettably many individuals have difficulty moving past the memory of the event. Experts have concluded if individuals immediately start talking about traumatic events, it actually increases the likelihood for traumatic events to become disturbingly hard wired or “stuck” in their emotional memory.

3 Key Points:

After exposure to a traumatic event, three things are important to be aware of:

1. It is normal to have an emotional reaction when exposed to a traumatic event which can manifest in the form of Sleep Disturbances, Disturbing Nightmares, Increased Anxiety, and Sadness.

2. According to Dr. Michael First, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, it is very normal for people to have a bad reaction after trauma such as ‘The Dark Knight Rises” movie shooting. Individuals should not get too upset if they are having bad dreams and cannot get [the event] out of their head or have trouble functioning in the days after. That is not a warning sign for PTSD; that is normal. In a severe trauma, it’s normal to have a severe reaction.

3. Recent traumatic events can trigger [ past ] traumatic memories. For anyone who is already suffering from a Mental Health condition, such as Depression, the movie massacre event could exacerbate it.

Following the Next 24-Hours:

Not everyone exposed to a traumatic event develops Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is estimated a small proportion of the witnesses may go onto develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An individual’s likelihood of developing PTSD is mainly due to their own predisposition to the disorder. The risk may be greater if the person has a family, or personal history of Mood and Anxiety Disorders.

The factors that seem to best predict adjustment include family history of mental illness, social support available, and manner in which individuals are able to process stressful stimuli.

Psychological Debriefing is intended to prevent psychological symptoms (e.g., PTSD) following a trauma and is typically a group intervention lasting up to a few hours that occur after a traumatic event. Although helpful, Psychological Debriefing has NOT been proven in the research to prevent PTSD, and has been proven in some cases, to make recovery more difficult for some.

It is equally important to note, those who receive prompt counseling in the form of Psychological Debriefing or Grief Counseling can be extremely supportive with most. All forms of Therapy and Support can only help in the days to come because these type of services help to normalize what a person is feeling, helps a person put events in perspective quicker so they do not have to ruminate on negative thoughts, and experiencing empathy and compassion from others can be curative in itself.

Just be mindful first, most people actually recover well from traumatic events without professional assistance. Secondly, just because an individual participates in preventive therapeutic services is no guarantee to completely avoid developing Psychological Symptoms in the weeks and months to follow. So third, it is best to seek support and participate in services and support available even if you feel you are resilient and can handle a great deal of stressful stimuli. Everyone responds differently and there is no tool or test to measure how a person will fair 2-months following exposure to extreme trauma.

Do seek professional assistance should symptoms of Acute Stress persist beyond 2-Days to 4-Weeks. Do continue to self monitor and alert others concerning Anxiety levels, Acute Stress Symptoms including re-experiencing the trauma (e.g., nightmares), sensitivity to triggers which prompt reliving traumatic memories, increased arousal (e.g., insomnia).

Until Next time: à Donf

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