The recent, senseless shooting at the Columbia Mall in Maryland took the lives of two innocent young people, injured five bystanders, and potentially traumatized countless others. The idea that an intrinsically “safe” family oriented place, like a school, a movie theatre, or a mall can become a war zone and killing ground is, tragically, becoming more and more commonplace in our world. Despite the fact that these events seem to get reported on the nightly news with more frequency and even some degree of nonchalance, we should never underestimate the short and long-term impact that they have on children and adults alike. In fact, the standard procedure of repeatedly bombarding us on the Internet and television with graphic imagery of body bags, people running in terror, and collapsing in pain in strangers arms, adds more layers of trauma rather than allowing us to effectively process and transcend it.
Within the first month of either witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, we can manifest significant symptoms that are indicative of Acute Stress Disorder. It’s important to know that people who have a prior history of trauma, loss, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or military service may be vulnerable to even greater mental health difficulties. In children and adults, look for the onset of anxiety or increased irritability, a heightened startle response, flashbacks or obsessive rumination about the event, scary or aggressive nightmares, changes in eating habits, and feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. Many people begin to feel more vulnerable and fearful, less trusting of others, and will avoid places or situations that are reminders of the traumatic experience. Others may feel haunted by “survivor guilt,” or berate themselves for the normal survival responses of fight/flight or freeze.
In all cases, these symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder affect either the quality of personal relationships, workplace or academic performance, physical or mental health. This is why it is so important that anyone who experiences or witnesses trauma receive the support they deserve to compassionately process and work through the experience. No matter how commonplace violence has become in our society, the fundamental threat to our integrity and wellbeing can still evoke painful, even paralyzing thoughts and feelings that deserved to be addressed and healed.
Have you treated clients who’ve experienced Acute Stress Disorder? How have you helped them work their experience?