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Are the Chilean miners at risk for developing PTSD?

by CHWatch on November 16, 2010

photo courtesy of Pseudo Victor via Flickr
Watching the rescue of the Chilean mine workers was such an emotional event for many. Now people are wondering if the miners will continue to be okay, or are they at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder?
Several experts around the world are weighing in on this issue, and they are actually quite optimistic the majority of the miners will return to their daily lives without any emotional fallout. Dr. George Bonanno, who was featured in my last post on grief, did an interview with Discovery news noting that most people recover from traumatic events without any PTSD symptoms.  He says, “I believe we’re innately wired to handle these events.” In his long-term studies, Dr. Bonanno observed that most people are exposed to at least one traumatic event during their lifetime, yet only 30% of people actually develop PTSD.
What factors seem to keep people from developing PTSD after a traumatic event? The data is not fully clear on this, but it seems people who develop PTSD are those who feel incredibly unprepared and helpless during the traumatic event. People who develop PTSD also tend to lack social support during or after the trauma, leaving them feeling more isolated, helpless, and misunderstood.
Because the Chilean mine workers knew the risks of their profession, experts opine they may have felt more prepared to deal with this event than say, a group of visitors to the mine. In addition, the 33 miners engaged in active social support. Discovery news reported that the men sat in a circle every day and talked about their feelings. During the event, the miners also had some access to food, water, and contact with the outside world.  After the event, they were welcomed with celebration, love, and support, providing further buffers from developing post-traumatic stress.
While the news is optimistic, the mine workers may still have some reactions as a result of the traumatic experience. For example, they may find they are not as eager to jump down into a mine. Or, they may notice feelings of apprehension when they experience certain smells, sounds, or other sensory associations from the event.
In my work with trauma survivors, I’ve noticed that many may not have the full blown diagnostic criteria for PTSD. However, they can still encounter feelings of dread, anxiety, and exaggerated responses upon encountering reminders of the traumatic event. The survival oriented part of our brain has a tendency to encode certain sensory data from the experience and tag it as a sign of something potentially dangerous. While the process is meant to alert and protect us from future trauma, it can interfere with our lives when this part of the mind confuses similar and same.
Overall, I think the Chilean mine workers will be okay and I applaud their courage.While I agree with Dr. Bonanno that we are wired for resilience, I’ve observed that sometimes our wires get crossed up! Fortunately, trauma treatments like Rapid Resolution Therapy can help you straighten them back out. So, even for those who develop PTSD, the news is still optimistic that you can recover and live a full life.

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