Is it really possible to recover from bad events?

Mort had a scotch in one hand and a financial report open on his tray table when he glanced out the airplane window just in time to see another jumbo jet break through the clouds heading directly at him. The plane was so close he could see the pilot and copilot. As you might imagine, in that moment, he felt sure that he was going to die. Almost simultaneously there was a sickening drop in his stomach as the plane he was in dove sharply, barely avoiding the crash.

That night Mort couldn’t sleep. He kept reliving the incident in his mind and imagining what it would have been like if the planes had collided. He decided a drink might help calm him down, but as he poured the scotch, the smell brought back the harrowing moment in vivid detail and he was seized with fresh panic.

The next morning the thought of going to work filled him with dread, so he decided to cancel his appointments and take the day off. That day turned into a week. He talked about the near collision so much that his wife and son were becoming weary with the story. They wanted him to “get over it” and let them all carry on with their lives. After all, he hadn’t been hurt. What was the big deal?

Clearly Mort was involved in a stressful situation, and even though he wasn’t hurt physically, he is suffering the effects of Critical Incident Stress. This can be classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), if the person “has experienced an event outside the range of usual human experience that would be markedly distressing to anyone.” It involves the inability to recover and move on with life because the event was so disquieting.

87% of all emergency personal will experience this type of disturbance at some point in their career, and a predicted 40% of us regular folks between the ages of 21-30 will have critical incidents. Things like auto accidents, assaults, natural disasters, witnessing a violent crime or seeing someone seriously injured or killed qualify. (Is it just me or does it seem like the world is becoming less peaceful?) Obviously not everyone who experiences a trauma will develop a stress reaction, but if you, or someone you care about does happen to be involved in a Critical Incident, here are some coping tips compiled by social worker Vickie Harris, that might be helpful.

  • Within 24-48 hours of the event alternate periods of strenuous exercise with relaxation to relieve some of the physical symptoms.
  • Give yourself permission to feel rotten. This was an awful event, feeling bad is typical, and allowing the feelings will help them diminish faster.
  • Maintain as regular a schedule as possible.
  • Structure your time. Keep busy.
  • Remember that you are experiencing a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, don’t label it as crazy.
  • Talk to people. Talk is the most healing medicine. Tell anyone who is available to listen about the event.
  • Realize that those around you are also under stress.
  • Be aware of numbing the pain with the use of drugs or alcohol. It would be a pity to complicate the whole situation with a substance abuse problem.
  • Keep a journal, write your way through those sleepless hours.
  • Do things that feel good to you.
  • Don’t make any big life changes.
  • Do make as many daily decisions as possible that which give you a feeling of control over your life. (If someone asks you what you want to eat, answer them even if you are not sure.)
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Realize that recurring thoughts, dreams and flashbacks are normal. Don’t try to fight them, they will decrease over time and become less painful.
  • Eat well balanced and regular meals, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • If the signs of stress do not subside within a few weeks, consider seeking further assistance.

I sincerely hope that none of us will have the type of experience that is haunting Mort. In any event, this piece of advise from the philosopher Chuang Tsuis worth considering.

“Flow with whatever may happen, and let your mind be free: Stay centered by accepting whatever you are feeling. This is the ultimate.”