Trauma Survivors need constructive support

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As the rescue operation to free trapped Beaconsfield miners, Brant Webb and Todd Russell enters its final stages, trauma experts at the Australian Psychological Society (APS) advise that the miners’ recovery and healing process will benefit most from constructive support.

APS Director of Communications, Dr Bob Montgomery said that until they are freed the miners would most likely be in an emotionally frozen state, focused understandably on survival. “The typical pattern of responses occurring during a critical event is initially shock, then disbelief, followed by a gradual realization that the danger is real. This usually triggers the emotionally frozen reaction, especially in a prolonged situation like this one. Hollywood-style panic is actually unusual; freezing is more common and probably reflects our evolutionary history.”

“This is the mind’s normal, self-protective response to a prolonged traumatic situation. It’s a way of not having to deal with the full force of the situation while you’re still stuck in it. It’s a normal and understandable way of coping but it does have the risk of later prompting self-blame by survivors for not being more clever or brave.”

“Once the traumatic situation is over,” said Dr Montgomery, “there is a common pattern of recovery, typically starting with shock. That’s very likely for Webb and Russell because of their prolonged internment under such difficult conditions. The risk is that this shock reaction is misunderstood as calmness and a lack of any major impact.”

“This is usually followed by depression and then anger, both understandable reactions to being treated so harshly by life, but possibly difficult for both the survivor and his family and friends. The risk of further alienating just the people whose support a survivor needs is the mood swings that usually occur next. The survivor seems fine one day and then struggling the next. This can be very confusing if it isn’t understood that it is at least a sign that the survivor is working through the recovery process.”

Dr Montgomery said that people have a strong need to make sense of their experiences. “So survivors will ruminate over the event, looking for an explanation. The real purpose of this reflection is to regain a sense of safety in daily living. In childhood we come to believe anxiety-reducing myths, such as ‘If I am good, life will be fair to me’ and ‘Bad things do happen but not to me.’ A traumatic experience demolishes those myths, leaving us vulnerable to chronic anxiety, so we work to re-establish those myths and regain a sense of safety.”

“The end result of a successful recovery is to be able to lay the experience to rest as an ugly memory, unpleasant to be reminded about, but no longer intruding too much into daily living. Most people will do this if they are given constructive support, emphasising the normality of their reactions during and after the trauma, and good emotional support from family and friends. Only a minority of trauma survivors develop serious long-term problems, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While that risk cannot be overlooked, indications from what we know about these two men and descriptions of them by their families suggest they are psychologically robust and will benefit most from good constructive support.”

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Dr Montgomery is available for interview.

For more information contact:

Elaine Grant
Communications Manager
Australian Psychological Society
03 8662 3363
0412 683 068