Coping After Trauma

Dr. William Elder is a psychologist with the PTSD clinic at the South Texas VA center. After a traumatic event, like the one in Sutherland Springs, PTSD for the survivors is not uncommon. The disorder is defined by the American psychology association as an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events.

“For the first 30 days you might re-experience in your mind some of those memories or have nightmares or feel like those events are happening again physiologically in your body,” Elder said. “If those symptoms last beyond 30 days, you may meet criteria for post traumatic stress disorder or another type of trauma disorder.”

Dr. Elder went on to explain that though you might not see the symptoms in yourself, a lot of times those closest to you, such as family, will realize you are showing certain signs of PTSD.

There are several types of traumatic disorders, the one most commonly talked about is PTSD. Other traumatic disorders might not met all of the same requirements as PTSD.

“Really we found, through 20 years of research or more since PTSD became a diagnosis in 1980, that only through emotionally processing those events people don’t tend to change,” Elder explained. “So we really do encourage people to find a treatment option that meets them where they are and slowly helps them to discuss those things.”

Two types of treatment options are common, one involving your way of thinking through the approach of five topics.

“Safety, trust issues, needing to be in control or feeling a sense of control over your environment to stay safe. Feelings of self esteem or esteem of other people. And also intimacy. Feeling physically or emotionally close to other people,” Elder said.

Dr. Elder explained that if you can approach these five topics in a way that is calm and objective, patients feel more in control.

The other form of treatment teaches patients to do things they may have been avoiding doing, such as returning back to church after a shooting.

“We do these additionally activities so that you really truly accurately identify what’s a dangerous situation and what’s not.”

Elder compared this type of treatment specifically to riding in a car. If a person is in a bad accident, they might be afraid to return back to a car. In a therapy session they will return someone to the car and have them work to the conclusion that though something bad has happened, generally, nothing bad will.

Dr Elder also addressed survivors guilt. A feeling common for those who survived a tragedy and wonder, why did I live when others did not. He described the deceased wouldn’t want you to feel sorry instead, the best way to honor them would be to live life to the fullest.

“The person who died would not want you to sit at home and be unhappy. Your relationship will continue with this person as you think about them everyday,” Elder said.” As you interact with their loved ones; as you remember the things that they taught you. As you find peace that you, you know, these people knew how much they meant to you.”

For the members of the Sutherland Springs congregation that survived, as long as they continue to honor the memory of those that were taken and live their own lives to the fullest, that is the best way to combat the feeling of guilt.

Though Dr. Elder works primarily with veterans he says finding a psychologist to speak to is a simple process.

“Your primary care physician may also give you a referral for a therapist. Or you can find a therapist online. Also, the American psychological association website, apa.org, has a search feature where you can find a psychologist in your area who specializes in the type of difficulties and mental health problems that you’re having,” he said.

In regards to the survivors of Sutherland Springs, though it has been 3 months since the tragedy, there are benefits to meeting with a therapist sooner rather than later.

“I would say the sooner the better because of the inevitable conclusion that this is not something that you can do on your own.”

Dr. Elder describes that he sees patients who have just suffered trauma, as well as ones that may have suffered some kind of trauma 30 years before. Though there is a stark time difference, what is most important is the treatment itself and that eventually someone suffering comes in for help.

The recovery process after an event like Sutherland Springs can be intimidating, but Dr. Elder is confident the treatment options available can make a difference.

“PTSD is something that can be treated and that people can overcome,” the doctor explained.

For those with hesitation about treatment, Dr. Elder says there’s nothing to lose but everything to gain.

“You don’t have anything to lose. It’s likely not to get worse.”