Current events, Health, Women's health

Women’s Health Part III: Frozen…Flight or Fright – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Panic & Anxiety Disorder, by Beverly Hicks Burch

In the week since the Virginia Tech tragedy, it seems our country has been caught in a cycle of insanity, with wackos, nuts and copycats coming out of the woodwork. As I was pondering the next installment of the “Women’s Health Series” and gathering some of the research on my subject, the news broke on the Johnson Space Center incident in Houston, TX. At the moment, it appears an individual with a gun has barricaded himself in one of the buildings of the space center campus…whether shots have been fired, it’s unclear and if there are hostages it is still unclear. (It was later discovered a man had indeed taken two co-workers hostage. He killed one male hostage, and turned his own weapon on himself, taking his life, before authorities were able to rescue a female hostage. The three had lunched together earlier in the day and evidently argued about something.)

This week saw the unbelievable, unprecedented playing of the Cho Seung Hui video, his still photos and manifesto. I am still incensed this psychopathic, ticking time bomb…who left road signs and red flags every where was allowed to stay at Virginia Tech AND allowed to buy two guns. I would ask the Administration of the college…knowing what you knew about Cho Seung Hui since 2005, would you have allowed your children to be suite mates and dorm mates with Cho?

And then, just this morning (Friday) as I watched the morning news with my husband, I heard something almost unthinkable. A mother…here in Tennessee took her child to kindergarten, went into her child’s classroom, pointed a toy gun at the class…a room full of kindergarten age children…and clicked the gun at the children as if to shoot them! My God in heaven, what was she thinking?! To do this to babies! Was she reacting in duress to this week, or is she another psychopath, seeking a moment of fame?

So, as the week progressed, I began to think of the aftermath, the recovery, and what the people and survivors at VT will most likely have to deal with…but, as I look at our country, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not going to be a national thing…a national recovery. And I know you’re asking, “What does this have to do with women’s health?” Well, let me explain.

The survivors and their families may have to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Panic & Anxiety Disorder. PTSD is a type of panic disorder, and is more familiar as a disorder that has afflicted war combatants over the ages. (Life can be and has its battles.) During the US Civil War, PTSD was known as “soldier’s heart”; during WWI it was known as “shell shock” and during WWII it was commonly known as “combat fatigue”. The reason I want to cover it in the “Women’s Health” series is because women have a twice higher incident of PTSD than men (women 10.4% rate; men 5% rate). It is also a topic I am all too familiar with, because during the 1990’s, I was diagnosed with both disorders.

So what is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Well, as I said before, it is a type of panic disorder. It can develop immediately after a major traumatic, stressful, life altering event or confrontation, or it may develop over time…sometimes it can take months or years to develop. What type of events? Or who should we be concerned about? Consider some of the situations below:

· Anyone who has been victimized or seen a violent act

· A survivor of rape, domestic violence, physical assault or random act of violence

· A survivor of an unexpected event such as an automobile wreck, terrorist attack, fire, etc.

· A survivor of sexual or physical abuse

· Soldiers, veterans and victims of war and combat

· Anyone who responds to traumatic events

· Trauma in the work place

· Anyone diagnose with a life-threatening illness; those who have had surgery

· Anyone who has experienced unexpected grief, for example, the loss of a loved one

· According to research, and this is one my oncologist, Dr. Kent Tucker, talked to me about during my last lung cancer, there is a growing number of cancer patients that report PTSD. Some studies show an incidence of between 5 – 20%. Some reasons for this is the stress of living with the possibility of recurrence and the stress of living with life threat and shortened life expectancy.

How will you know if your stress has taken over your life and developed into something that you need help with? Here are some symptoms of PTSD:

· Feeling like the event is happening again, bad memories, flashbacks, hallucinations

· Trouble sleeping and nightmares

· Trying not to think about the trauma and/or staying away from people and things that remind you of the trauma and/or event; extreme distress at exposure to reminders of the “trigger”

· Staying away from and avoiding people who remind you of the event or stressor

· Feeling emotionally numb; detached from others; extreme distress when exposed to reminders or “triggers” of the event

· Irritable, jumpy, becoming easily angered

· Not feeling close to people

· Not being able to recall parts of the event

· Feeling guilty because others died and you survived an event

· Hypervigilance, memory loss, excessive startle response, anxiety

By now you may be asking about the Panic & Anxiety Disorder. The response that occurs during a panic attack is that “Fight or Flight” response reflex…you know the one we see in babies sometimes when they hear a sudden loud noise and they’re startled. It’s almost like a survival instinct, but our bodies are not designed to handle that response over a prolonged, sustained period of time.

What are some of the symptoms of a panic attack? Well, if you have ever had one, you will certainly recognize the symptoms below:

· Racing heart; heart palpitations

· Rapid breathing

· Nausea, vomiting

· Diarrhea

· Loss of bladder control

· Trembling and shaking

· Excessive perspiration

· Hot flashes; flushed face

· Pins and needles feeling

· Light headedness, dizziness and feeling faint

· Lump in the throat

· Dissociation – out of body experience

· Feeling as if you are looking at things through a fog

There is hope. As I mentioned before, I was diagnosed with both disorders in the 1990’s. Now, as a first born, it is my nature and tendency to seek help and fix things. (I learned this little tidbit when I read Dr. Kevin Leman’s book, The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are, Revell 2004.) If you had a broken leg, the flu, TB, cancer, or any other physical malady you would fairly readily consult your physician. And, you should with an emotional, mental or psychological malady, but, most folk don’t because they are concerned there may be an associated stigma carried with seeking counseling or therapy. My personal philosophy…”if it’s broke, fix it…if it’s not broke…don’t fix it”…pure and simple.

Let me explain it another way. In days gone by, it was very popular for women to cook with a pressure cooker. (I’ve heard they are making a resurgence…who would have “thunk it”.) The pressure cooker was a pot in which you could place something, say like a roast, put a lid with a special seal on the pot and then cook the roast under pressure. The lid had a valve and the purpose of that valve was to allow the build up of steam inside the pot to escape. The gimmick was that the roast cooked in less than normal time and was suppose to be super moist. There was one problem…on occasion, something would go awry and if the pressure cooker was damaged in any way, the valve could pop off, the pressure cooker could explode and major damage could happen…yes, the proverbial eye could be put eye. Not to make light of the situation, but we would have a pressure cooker with PTSD.

Now, to relate that to humans…the human body can deal with the build up of so much stress for so long. Yes, it is normal to have stress in your life…it won’t totally go away, but there is a difference in what we are talking about. After too much build up, and no way for the steam to let off, the valve pops off. Let me give you some examples:

I can only give you two…a personnel one, and one that I feel affects our nation. Personally, I know this, I am normal person…I’m probably pretty much like you. My friends have told me, “Bev, you should write a book.” I just laugh because I think, “Nah, I just normal, and who would believe some of these things could happen to a normal person.” I’ve often thought if I did write a book, I call entitle it, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Person”.

When I say there is hope, I know that…I found that out. I sought out help when I started having MAJOR panic attacks. I went to counseling and my doctor, Dr. Dan, was fantastic, he was patient and empathetic.” (As a matter of fact, I returned to him a few years later, when my husband of 27 years walked out on me after being unfaithful.) I remember him saying at one point I had been through more than most people my age. I was taken aback by that and he asked me why. I had told him, “Well, it’s just my life and I guess I thought it was normal.” Dr. Dan confirmed what Dr. Tucker had told me about cancer and panic attacks. It was probably after my last cancer surgery when I had one of my first major attacks. Then he explained what was happening to me; he explained PTSD and Panic and Anxiety Disorder. He gave me homework…some reading…and actually some movies to watch, and yes, there were some medications to take…some, only as needed. What else helps? Faith, friends and loved ones…we’re told to lay up our treasures in heaven, and I do believe in that, but I must say, I have receive a special blessing down here…in the form of the right man…a kind, caring, compassionate man…

Nationally, I’m beginning to wonder if we are dealing with a delayed case of PTSD. Consider what we have been through in the last 20 – 25 years as a nation…and remember…it can take years to build up a case of PTSD: Just to name a few events, starting in late 1979 we had the Iranian hostage crisis that captivated this nation for over a year; in early 1980 Mt. St. Helens erupted…a natural disaster like we had never seen; we watched on TV as we lost the Challenger and her brave crew as it exploded before our very eyes and that of the families of the crew…and wounded the soul of America; then the unbelievable happened…again…as the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry…once again caught on camera; the Marine barracks were bombed in Lebanon; the USS Cole was assaulted on foreign shores, leaving us to ask why; will you forget the gut-wrenching scream of a mother at the airport in New York when she found out her child had been on PanAM 103 when it exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland; we’ve lived through more school shootings than parents and a nation should have to in a lifetime, little less than in a decade or two…Columbine, Paducah, Pearl and now Virginia Tech; there was the Oakland Earthquake…caught on TV during the Word Series…who can forget those images; and then the hurricanes, Hugo, Frederick, Andrew, the season of 2004 when Florida was battered one right after another…and then Katrina…the mother of all hurricanes and sorrow; Waco; Oklahoma City; our national grit was sorely tested September 11, 2001 when we lost almost 3,000 souls…not at the hands of gunmen, but at the hands of gutless terrorists who have no meaning of what true freedom really means. We watched that day as they assaulted our Twin Towers…for the second and final time…and then turned their deadly aim toward the heart of our government.

So what must we do? Individually AND as a nation…we must not be afraid to seek the help we need to heal, to become stronger, to help others, to recognize those that need our help and to recognize the evil that may lurk amongst us. We can not and will not let the evil doers and circumstances of life win!

All that is essential for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Edmunde Burke


© 2007 Beverly Hicks Burch All rights reserved.


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