Traumatic Stress

By Toby Snelgrove, Ph.D.

As he entered the theatre, the smell of freshly made popcorn was irresistible. Pleasant childhood memories danced through his mind as he said to his wife:

“Honey, it’s our night out! Lets get double buttered popcorn.”

Ron thought about how great it was to have a time out from work and kids time to be with his wife and relax. What made it even better was that he had won the flip of the coin. This movie was his choice.

“I feel like I am on a date.” giggled his wife as they settled into their seats and prepared to be entertained. “This is great!”

But what they weren’t prepared for was what happened. As the shots rang out on the screen he thought, “Boy, this Dolby sound system is really something!”. His excitement turned to horror as the screams from his fellow patrons told him that something awful had just happened. The movie had come to life. A man had been shot. A man had been murdered!

A shocking event like this is called a traumatic stress. These are acutely stressful events that rarely occur yet, when they do, can have a profound impact. Being in a life threatening situation, as it was for those closest to the theatre victim, is the most powerful source of traumatic stress. However, simply observing horrible incidents such as an unexpected death, visually unpleasant incidents such as mutilated bodies, or emotionally gripping incidents such as child death, can generate symptoms so powerful that they often leave people feeling that they are going “crazy”.

Whether it was a near-death experience or not, there are two fundamental reactions to a traumatic event. First, our animal fight or flight survival mechanism gets switched on. Sights, sound, tastes, and smells that we experience during the incident are stored in permanent memory. These memories serve as triggers warning us that, “The last time you experienced this sight, sound, taste or smell, a horrible thing happened so get ready to fight or flight!”. Other symptoms include flashbacks (an uninvited recalling of the incident in one’s mind); disturbed sleep patterns (nightmares, can’t sleep); avoidance behaviours (not wanting to go back to that theatre, not wanting to think or talk about the event); emotional instability (quick to tears, irritability); and so on. They are all designed to get our attention increasing our chance at survival.

The second reaction is a mental or cognitive one. These events often shatter our assumptions about life. In this case, who would have ever thought someone would be murdered in a North Vancouver theatre? Survivors may be thinking: “Will this happen again?” “Am I safe anywhere?” “What has this world come to?” Those who knew the victim may be questioning the meaning or the fairness of life. Others may be questioning their actions at the scene or later. In all cases each individual needs to be able to “Talk it out” so that they can begin to rebuild their assumptions about life given this new reality.

Here is some advice to anyone who has experienced a traumatic event.

Ron’s life will never be the same. The smell of fresh popcorn will probably no longer bring back a memory filled with youthful innocence. Unfortunately, no one can erase this event from his life, but through dialogue and personal reflection , the disturbing triggers won’t hold such an emotional punch.