Recognizing symptoms of post-traumatic stress

The families of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman opened fire on school children and staff in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.



TORONTO - Friday's horrific shooting in a Connecticut elementary school is being called one of the worst mass murders in US history, trailing slightly behind the massive tragedy of the 2007 Virginia Tech university massacre.

An event of such magnitude is guaranteed to have instant and long-term effects, not only for those directly affected by the tragedy, but also those hearing or reading about it in far-flung areas of the world. The advent of multimedia has made the delivery of such tragic circumstances instantaneous, resulting in its impact being felt almost immediately.

Regardless of whether you were right there, or hearing about it in another city or country, how one deals with the crisis depends on how diligent one is in recognizing the symptoms such an event can create.

They can range from "a sense of numbing or detachment, or a feeling that things are not real," notes Dr. Peter Stenn of Humber River Hospital, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma. "People can expect symptoms likely to occur when a person, especially a young person, sees a horrible thing like this (shooting)," adds Stenn, who has been a psychiatrist for 30 years, 12 with Humber, and who has dealt with the after-effects of such trauma as shootings in Toronto.

"One can expect this feeling of an absence of emotional responsiveness (to last) and some people might have trouble recalling an important part of what happened. Some people may expect a feeling of generally being wired up and hyper-vigilant, or on guard. You'll find they are irritable, and have difficulty in sleeping, or have an exaggerated startled effect," said Stenn, who participated in a live chat on to address readers' immediate concerns over the tragedy.

"Another thing that we can expect is re-experiencing in very vivid imaging, what that person saw. The flashbacks can be startling (in how) real they feel. It's a horrible feeling and most want to get rid of it's the same thing that happens in war, and is part of a condition referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder."

The good news is time does heal, says Stenn. "People can heal. As time passes these symptoms usually dissipate and quiet down. Sometimes people have anniversary reaction, or strong stimulus reminds them, and some of these feelings may come back in the future."

That said, "if these problems are significant enough that a person can't work or fill his normal roles, than it's required to be treated."

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