Written by Daniel J. Potterton, FEI Chief Operating Officer

In the immediate aftermath of a terrifying event, we often experience what’s known as the fight or flight response. It is a primitive reaction within all of us for the purpose of preservation. Whether facing a physical threat or a psychological one, we’re wired to either take control of a situation and fight—or make a split second decision to run away from harm (flight).

It’s important to understand that there is no right or wrong way to respond to a terrifying event. People process and react to events differently, and these reactions depend on past experiences or traumas, expectations of the present, and future concerns of a traumatic event potentially happening again.

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, volunteers trained to assist runners after crossing the finish line were exposed to the most horrific and frightening experiences. While some stayed to assist the injured, others feared for their own lives and fled the scene. No one was prepared to witness the destruction of human life in such a terrible way.

There’s no doubt that all the volunteers experienced some degree of trauma. In addition to the immediate, intense feelings of fear after the explosion, there were additional aspects of trauma yet to be felt. On the one hand, those who stayed to assist were exposed to the mutilated bodies of the injured; on the other, those who fled suffered intense feelings of guilt after second-guessing their own actions.

While some volunteers did not have lasting problems, many others struggled with anxiety. Others still developed serious emotional distress. Mild anxious feelings over time escalated to extreme anxiety, fear and despair. They relived the event in the form of flashbacks, difficulty concentrating and an increase in health problems.

These are all warning signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other signs and symptoms most commonly experienced by people with PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through vivid and distressing memories or dreams.
  • Avoiding situations that remind them of the traumatic event.
  • Feeling numb, as though they don’t have the same range of feelings they once did.
  • Being in a state of “alertness” and watching out for danger.

If you or someone you know has experienced similar trauma, family and friends can help see you through this difficult chapter. Many people find that the feelings they experience after a traumatic event gradually reduce over time. However, you may need to see a professional if your feelings are too much for you, or go on for too long.

Your company’s EAP benefit can be an excellent resource to start you on a path to restoring emotional and psychological health.