I am an alumnus of Stoneman Douglas High School and am highly trained in the field of trauma and PTSD. As we approach the 1 year anniversary of this inconceivable event, I want to share as much information as I can to help a community that I am deeply connected to prepare emotionally over the next several weeks. I’ve compiled the most frequently asked topics from parents and teenagers I’ve worked with to create this four part Trauma Series. I hope this information is helpful as we enter this next phase of recovery.
What is trauma?
Mental Health providers use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to help guide in the diagnosis of mental health disorders. In the DSM 5 a trauma is defined as “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”. According to the DSM 5, a trauma can be experienced in three various ways: direct personal exposure, witnessing of trauma to others, and indirect exposure through trauma experience of a family member or other close associate.
What can I expect after being exposed to a trauma?
There are an array of symptoms that occur after being exposed to a traumatic event. Those symptoms might include:
- Poor sleep
- Feeling jumpy
- Having intrusive thoughts about the event
- Trouble concentrating
While this is not an exhaustive list, a majority of people exposed to a traumatic incident may find these symptoms resonate with their own experiences.
The traumatic event is abnormal, you reactions to it are not.
Most people don’t grow up thinking they’ll experience gun violence in their lifetime let alone a mass shooting at their High School. We weren’t taught how to cope with something of this magnitude and given the statistical odds many would argue there was no reason to. So here we are experiencing something quite out of the ordinary and our minds and bodies are doing exactly what they are designed to do.
Survivors of gun violence may look for exits when indoors. Military trained men and women might attach mirrors on their work desks to see behind them at all times. It’s the exposure to the abnormal that changes how we think about our environment and subsequently our behavior will reflect those changes.
When exposed to a threatening situation our bodies release hormones that prepare us to stay and fight or to run to safety. This response is called the fight-or-flight response. What’s important to note here is that this response can be triggered by real danger or perceived danger (intrusive thoughts for example). By simply thinking about a memory associated with the traumatic event your fight-or-flight response can be triggered. Coming in and out of the fight-or-flight response is not only disruptive as we try to return to work and school but it can be downright exhausting. This is an incredible amount of stress added to your life. Can you see how this might impact your sleep and your mood?
You might be saying to yourself “I don’t feel normal. Something is wrong with me.” While it doesn’t feel good at all and it can be terribly uncomfortable at times, I want you to know that there is nothing wrong with you or with what you are experiencing. Remember, it’s the trauma that is out of place and your mind and body are responding in a very normal way. In part 2 we will discuss what happens when these symptoms don’t go away and what makes acute stress disorder different from PTSD.
Some people naturally recover from traumatic experiences but some people need help learning how to recover (remember we weren’t taught how to do this). If it’s been over a month and your symptoms have not improved or are getting worse, you can contact a mental health professional in your area to get an evaluation and learn some ways to cope with your symptoms. I offer in office sessions in Coral Springs Florida as well as Telehealth sessions throughout the State of Florida. You can contact my office to set up an appointment by filling out this form here.
If you are in immediate crisis and need to speak to someone right away, you can call the National Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or you can text HOME to 741741 to text (for free) with a trained crisis counselor.