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Overflow Crowd Learns about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Heather Ciras

November 3, 2010

By Heather Ciras

“We can’t ride the subway for fear of a suicide bomber,” said Elizabeth O’Doherty of her twin sister, Theresa, and herself. “We can’t sit under a bridge for fear of a surprise attack. We can’t fly in airplanes for fear of a terrorist hijacking.”

This is the suffering that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) created in Elizabeth and Theresa’s lives after they served in Iraq.

Now, years later, the sisters stood in front of a packed room at a PTSD lecture at Regis College reading a poem they had written as undergraduates on how difficult it was to deal with in the aftermath of service. The O’Doherty’s have since become nurse practitioners through the Regis College School of Nursing, Sciences and Health Professions, and they spoke about their personal experiences with trauma as well as about treating people with PTSD.

Their presentation was part of the Regis College Leadership Series on Health in partnership with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. The crowd consisted of Regis College students and faculty, as well as local clinicians, and members of the public.

“PTSD has been called a normal reaction to abnormal events,” said Dr. Margaret Bell, a staff psychologist at the Boston VA Health Care System, who added that patients with PTSD often re-experience the trauma – often through nightmares and flashbacks – and can feel numb towards others and hypersensitive to their surroundings. These issues can translate into avoidance of relationships, problems with employment, indecisiveness, self blame, an increase in dependence on drugs and alcohol, feeling like they’re “crazy,” and strong reactions to imperfections in their behavior or others’ behavior, among other things.

The disorder is not limited only to those who have seen combat. In fact, while veterans’ experiences with PTSD are most highly publicized, it’s more common to experience PTSD with interpersonal trauma like rape or molestation rather than with combat service, said Bell.

“But there’s some good news,” added Bell. “Trauma creates a lot of complex emotions for people. But what you’re seeing in your offices is coming from a place of strength; it’s the brain trying to control one’s life again.”

Specifically, the parts of the brain that are affected by severe trauma control one’s ability to sense threats in the environment.  This is “fear conditioning,” which is when the brain codes a previously neutral event as a fearful event, according to Dr. Lisa Shin, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University. She is researching veterans with and without PTSD and their identical twins to see if there is a gene that could make people more susceptible to developing the disorder after trauma.

“We want to know where the issue is,” she said. “Maybe we’ll be able to adjust treatment to the brain regions.” After all, the ultimate goal of PTSD research is to find a way to treat the disorder better, whether it’s through therapy or medication.

“PTSD used to be a death knell diagnosis; you got it and managed it for your whole life,” said Bell. “We don’t think like that anymore. There are things that people can do for their symptoms to try and recover.”

“As I listened to all these lectures I think the common thread is very humanistic,” said moderator Joel Rubenstein, the associate medical director of Network Medical Management at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. “The emphasis is really to listen to the individual and find out what really happened to them in order to help them.”

The Regis College Leadership Series on Health was created in 2007 in partnership with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. This unique series of free lectures is designed to interest and inform both those in the health care field and the general public. The goal of the series is to build awareness of contemporary health and wellness issues and to develop knowledge and skills that will effect positive change addressing those issues. The next event is on November 17 from 6:30 to 8:30 in the Upper Student Union at Regis College. The topic is the prevention of violence against women. In the spring season, presentations are an update on the Massachusetts health care reform law and a discussion on bullying.

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