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Doctors Sylvia and Milton Gearing have been serving the Dallas-Fort Worth area since 1985 with compassion and professionalism.

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Complex Trauma Syndrome - Apr 30, 2006

Complex Trauma Syndrome

April 30, 2006

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, CBS 11 News

The movie, United 93, chronicling the events of 9/11, was released this last week to audiences nationally. Now psychologists are saying that the events of that day could cause more severe and lasting effects, called Complex Psychological Trauma. Here to tell us more is psychologist Dr. Sylvia Gearing.

Q: Do some people escape these trauma conditions even when they are placed in horrific events?

Dr. Sylvia: We now know that the most powerful determinant of psychological harm is the severity of the traumatic event itself. There is a simple and strong relationship between the severity of the trauma and its emotional impact. For example, seventy five percent of Vietnam veterans who were in heavy combat experienced post traumatic syndrome.

We know that people who try to exert control and fight back have lower rates of trauma. For example, the bravery of the people in the movie, United 93, demonstrated that during highly stressful events, these highly resilient people worked together to win their freedom and refused to surrender. It is important to remember that people who are paralyzed or isolated by terror do not fare well.

Q: What is Complex Post-Traumatic Syndrome?

Dr. Sylvia: This new disorder goes beyond the traditional descriptions of post traumatic. Psychologists now understand that psychological stressors reside on a complexity continuum. At one end are single-incident traumatic events such as a car accident, a mugging, etc.

At the opposite end are responses to multiple, extended and often highly invasive and traumatic events. This type of trauma attempts to capture the symptoms of prolonged, repeated trauma in which people are subjected to several traumas successively. The people directly exposed to the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are at risk for this serious disorder.

Q: How does it differ from post traumatic stress disorder?

Dr. Sylvia: This type of trauma is often the result of repetitive and multiple incidents in which the person was made to feel helpless. Trauma is an affliction of the powerless. You must remember that when a person is overwhelmed by terror and helplessness, their ability to self activate is obliterated completely. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized.

Q: Are there different kinds of events that cause these trauma disorders?

Dr. Sylvia: When the force is that of nature, such as Hurricane Katrina, we speak of disasters. When that force is at the hands of mankind, such as 9/11, we speak of atrocities. Complex Trauma develops when the individual is repeatedly subjected to a series of traumas and cannot escape for some time.

Q: Why is trauma so overwhelming?

Dr. Sylvia: Traumatic events occur when action will not help to alleviate the circumstances. Traumatic events interrupt our belief that we can control the outcome of our lives. Psychologists now believe that trauma deeply affects the central nervous system. Trauma victims feel that their adrenalin is constantly flowing and they are in a state of continuo0us alert. They are convinced, at a visceral level, that danger might return at any moment. These events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death.

Q: Can Post Traumatic Stress or Complex Trauma occur in events that are not life threatening?

Dr. Sylvia: Both can absolutely occur in events that are not life threatening but threaten our way of life. Psychologists now believe that trauma can be incurred in a number of everyday situations, such as in infidelity, in which the betrayed partner is made to feel intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and the threat of their safety disappearing.

Q: What are the top symptoms of trauma?

Dr. Sylvia: There are three main categories of post-traumatic stress.

Hyper-arousal: The person has a persistent expectation of danger and is overly reactive to stress.

Intrusive Thinking: The victim experiences repeated thoughts and memories from the trauma. Intrusive thoughts reflect the indelible imprint of the traumatic moment.

Emotional Constriction: People who have been victimized are often so overwrought with emotion that they try to avoid and restrict their emotional responses to everything. The constriction reflects the numbing response of surrender.