Survivors of traumatic events may experience PTSD

More than two weeks ago, a four-story building under demolition collapsed on top of the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market streets, killing six people and injuring 13.  

Before firefighters and emergency rescue workers could arrive on the scene, ordinary passersby ran to the site to help those trapped in the rubble.

After living through the collapse, and recovering from injuries, survivors may face another challenge—the potential for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as PTSD.

People who are diagnosed with PTSD have experienced distressing events like the building collapse, including abuse, combat, natural disasters, life-threatening accidents, or violent crimes. Researchers say, however, not everyone suffers from PTSD.

Among those who are affected, typical post-trauma stress reactions will initially occur, and will not fade with time. If these reactions last more than one month, PTSD is likely present.

“In this case, the survivors might now be more afraid of buildings collapsing and want to stay away from tall buildings,” says Sandy Capaldi, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Perelman School of Medicine’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “But the reality is that the probability of a building collapsing is no greater now than it was the day before this tragedy. It is only this experience that has made it seem more likely to occur. However, if you avoid tall buildings, you won’t give yourself the chance to re-learn that tall buildings are okay 99 percent of the time.”

Common symptoms of PTSD include ongoing intrusive distressing memories, dreams or flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, hyper-vigilance, and certain physical reactions, like an increased heart rate. 

Individuals with PTSD can experience anger, shame, guilt, or fear, and the inability to feel positive emotions. They may also have negative, distorted beliefs about the trauma, themselves, or about the safety of the world in general.

Capaldi suggests trauma survivors should continue living normal, everyday lives.

“Garnering social support, talking about how you feel, and letting yourself have thoughts and feelings about what happened is helpful,” she says. “You may be struggling with newly acquired fears that relate to the event you experienced, but it is important not to avoid activities or situations because of that fear.”

Melissa Hunt, associate director of the clinical training program in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences, says that if people are still experiencing significant distress and intrusive memories or dreams, avoidance, shame, guilt, or rage after one month, it might be time to seek professional help.

“Some distress, dreams, and intrusive recollections are normative,” she says. “It only becomes problematic if the person starts engaging in avoidant coping. [That could mean] avoiding thinking or talking about the experience, avoiding places, people, or things that remind them of the trauma.”

According to the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, an estimated 8 percent of the U.S. adult population meets the criteria for PTSD, and women are more likely to develop symptoms than men.