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Boston Marathon Bombing Anniversary May Stir Up Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms


RunnersThe first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing is fast approaching, and stories of tragedy and triumph are everywhere we look. Whether a person was running the marathon, cheering on a loved one, or watching it on TV, many were impacted by the events of that day.

Darren Holowka, PhD, clinical psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital, specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here, he offers tips on dealing with PTSD in light of the bombing anniversary, and tips for those whose loved ones may be suffering from the disorder.

Q: Exactly what is PTSD, and who does it affect?  

PTSD is a pattern of characteristic symptoms after exposure to one or more events that involve actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. Exposure may occur directly, witnessing the event(s) or learning about such things happening to someone close to you. It is important to note that it does not apply to exposure through television or other media, unless this exposure is work-related.

Although the vast majority of people exposed to psychological trauma go on to recover naturally over time, PTSD affects approximately 7-9 percent of people in their lifetimes.

Q: How do you know if you, or someone you love, has PTSD? What signs and symptoms should you watch for?  

When someone continues to experience significant distress more than a month after the event or when thoughts and behaviors associated with the event interfere in important areas of one’s life (e.g., work, relationships), this may be cause for concern.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  1. Recurrent, distressing memories, (including nightmares, flashbacks or distress at reminders)
  2. Persistent avoidance of things associated with the event (thoughts, people, situations)
  3. Changes in thoughts or mood (“the world is completely unsafe,” detachment, persistent fear)
  4. Changes in arousal or reactivity (feeling jumpy or on edge, irritable, having trouble sleeping)

Q: How is PTSD treated? Can it be cured?  

Current state-of-the-art treatments for PTSD usually involve psychotherapy, medication or a combination of both. Individual and group psychotherapies under the umbrella of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) have been shown to be most effective. Such treatments are generally helpful in reducing symptoms and improving functioning, however, to date there is no cure for PTSD. Memories cannot be erased, but with proper treatment their impact can be effectively managed.

Q: If you think you’ve faced PTSD head-on and are doing better, can something trigger it to return?  

Recovering from trauma is not a linear process, and even when people have recovered, either on their own, or through successful treatment, reminders or triggers related to the event may cause reactions down the road. For instance, someone who hasn’t been bothered by reminders of the Boston Marathon bombing in months could find that with increased media coverage or going back to the marathon this year could experience an increase in some PTSD-like symptoms, such as feeling tense or jumpy, having nightmares, having concerns for one’s safety or feeling more on guard.

Trying to avoid thoughts or feelings associated with such terrible things is not usually successful, and can lead to problems, but talking to supportive family or friends about things that have happened can be very helpful. The most important thing to remember is that traumatic events, like the Boston Marathon bombing, can surely bring up many complicated feelings and having them stirred up, especially around anniversaries, is normal. On the other hand, if these feelings persist or begin to interfere in our lives, we recommend consulting a mental health professional.

If you or a loved one need help dealing with post-traumatic stress, please call 401-444-7455.