The Paddington Survivors Group Support Site

Trauma Reaction

Everyone, at some point in their lives, has to cope with a shock that upsets normal routines and patterns of behaviour. This can be good news - the birth of a child perhaps - or a sad event, such as the death of a loved one following illness. 

These events cause emotional reactions but, as they are part and parcel of normal life, the human mind has, over the years, developed a coping mechanism.  

Involvement in a sudden major accident is different; it is unexpected and although immediate reaction will be governed by the natural personal survival instinct, there may well be longer-term effects. Breaking a leg on a football pitch can lead to a complex recovery process involving surgeons, physiotherapy and a long period of rest.

Similarly, a shock to the mental process - the fear of dying, the images of fatality, broken bodies and horrific bloody scenes - can lead to the need for similar professional help, maybe involving psychiatrists, specialist trauma counsellors and a period for rest and adjustment.

Whilst not necessarily inevitable, some form of adverse mental reaction to trauma is certainly not abnormal.

Who may be Affected?

Well, everyone is. One of the lessons learnt from Ladbroke Grove is that it is not just those who are physically injured who can be expected to experience the long-term effects on their feelings and behaviour.

Indeed, those physically injured or burned have, in some ways, the best possible start to their mental adjustment as they have an enforced period of rest in hospital - reinforcing the abnormality of their experience. They have specialist medical care and their confinement also forces friends, family and colleagues to accept that something serious has happened to them.

It is those who appear to be fine, and who may resume "normal" activity almost immediately, who are likely to be at most risk. There are no physical signs of their ordeal and people around them quickly forget what they have been through.

Additionally, the relatives and close friends of those involved can also be expected to undergo a mental adjustment reaction, particularly if a survivor is disfigured.

Friends and family

The support of friends and family, primarily to listen, is important in the adjustment phase - A "Pull Yourself Together" attitude, whilst often meant well, is neither helpful nor realistic and can make the situation worse as the individual affected feels even more isolated.

Possible Symptoms

Initially, all disaster survivors can expect to be in shock, a period characterised by denial and bewilderment coupled with a feeling of sheer joy at having survived. The sky is wonderfully blue, the air clear. This period may last hours or days and is quite normal.

As reality sets in, it is not uncommon for survivors to have feelings of guilt - asking why they survived when others didn't, or what more could they have done to help others. This is a normal response to an extraordinary incident and these emotions can be expected to pass and normality return.

However, for some people these feelings of shock and guilt may be prolonged and accompanied by sleeping difficulties and flashbacks in which the individual feels they are reliving the incident.

This is not unusual but these feelings can, if unchecked, lead to more deep-rooted and intense emotional experiences. Sudden outbursts of anger or tears, hyper-activity and low self-confidence are common features of this stage and can have a very real effect on perceptions of self-worth and in the handling of personal relationships.

The Good News: Adjustment/Treatment

Through normal coping mechanisms the majority of people caught up in a disaster will come to terms with their involvement without formal medical intervention; the worst symptoms can be expected to pass within a month or so.

However, everyone's coping mechanism is different and a significant number of people can be expected to develop more prolonged reactions that would benefit from prompt intervention. Indeed, an early check-up with a GP can result in a brief period of specialist counselling which will be sufficient for more normal behavioural patterns to return. Not all GPs will be experienced in the effects of trauma so it is important to stress that you want the causes treated, not the symptoms.

Prolonged symptoms, however, if untreated, can lead to misery for the individual and, potentially, a very real illness Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. PTSD itself is also treatable and the vast majority of people make a full recovery.

If you are making a compensation claim your lawyers should ensure that you are checked for psychological damage before your claim is finalised. Damage that appears after your claim is settled will not be covered except in exceptional circumstances.

The good news

Finally, be assured that some form of mental reaction to involvement in a disaster is entirely normal. Recovery will take time, but you will feel better, the effects will lessen, and you will be able to look back on this part of your life in a completely different way.