PTSD likely to affect many survivors of recent tornadoes, but help is available



April 2011 will go down in history as one of the most active and deadly months for tornadoes in the Deep South. The state of Alabama saw the most damage. Entire towns were obliterated.

But even as wounds begin to heal, debris is cleared and rebuilding and recovery begin, another problem may loom for many tornado survivors: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Left untreated, PTSD can make it difficult for people to overcome the tragedies they lived through.

PTSD is a condition that sometimes develops when a person experiences an event which involves actual or threatened death or serious injury to self or someone close to them.

PTSD first observed, researched among Viet Nam War vets

The disorder was first described in Viet Nam War veterans. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of combat vets experience some form of PTSD, although milder forms may not be diagnosed or treated. Combat veterans tend to experience more severe forms of PTSD because of the duration and severity of trauma during war.  The disorder is also diagnosed in civilians who have experienced and survived serious trauma, including physical abuse, rape, and natural disasters such as the recent tornadoes that ravaged through the American south.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

Formal diagnostic criteria (both DSM-IV and ICD-10) require that the symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

People with PTSD may experience a variety of somatic and psychological complaints:  sleep disturbance, outbursts of anger, and an exaggerated startle response (they may jump at sudden noises or movements which trigger memories of the event in the subconscious).

Tornado survivors may \”see\” a funnel cloud coming toward him or her, even though the sky may be only partly cloudy or instinctively seek shelter under a desk at the sound of a nearby train.  As a result, a person with PTSD may avoid all situations that might be a reminder of the trauma, and tend to react with significant anxiety whenever he or she is reminded of the event in any way – thunder rumbling in the distance or the sounds of sirens.

Social relationships often suffer, as the person becomes more withdrawn and detached.

Certain sounds, sights, smells or feelings, often buried deep in the unconscious mind, may “trigger” flashbacks. In severe cases, a flood of triggers affecting all senses may occur dozens of times throughout the course of a day. The condition, known as sensory bombardment, may be particularly difficult to manage without significant specialized treatment.

Identifying and managing these triggers become a critical component in treating the disorder.

Children with PTSD face challenges at school, home

With children, continual and aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the traumatic event, continued and extreme withdrawal, and other signs of intense anxiety or emotional difficulties all point to the need for professional assistance. A qualified professional can help such children and their parents understand and deal with the myriad thoughts, feelings and behaviors that result from trauma.

If signs of PTSD emerge, seek help

Although it is safe to assume that everyone who experienced the recent tornadoes will be affected in some way for years to come, certainly not everyone will develop PTSD. Each person has his or her own individual systems for coping with traumatic events. There are a number of internal and external variables which determine whether the condition will emerge, as well as severity of the symptoms and treatment plan if it does.

The good news is that there is treatment available for persons with PTSD. Like most conditions, the earlier the disorder is diagnosed and appropriate treatment is started, the better the prognosis for recovery and the less likely the condition will have lasting debilitating effects.

A combination of cognitive therapy, supportive counseling and behavioral interventions appear to be most effective. In more severe cases of PTSD, medication may be prescribed to augment the psychological treatment.

It is important for victims of the recent tornadoes and other traumatic events to understand that help is available and there is no need to face the challenging aftermath of tragedy alone.

For more information:

National Institute of Mental Health