Recovering from the emotional effects of a traumatic event — whether it's Sunday's deadly shooting in Sutherland Springs or Hurricane Harvey this summer — can take years.
Dr. Carol North, a crisis psychiatrist with UT Southwestern Medical Center, has studied survivors of major disasters — from the Oklahoma City bombings to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina.
She says traumatic events — defined as a "threat to life or limb" — can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, but not always. Coping with tragedy is different for everyone.
Why some people react differently to tragedy: "We don't know exactly why some people will develop PTSD and other people will recover quickly from their symptoms and distress. It seems that some people are just more vulnerable to developing psychiatric illness after stressors and traumatic stressors than other people are, and it may have something to do with the constitutional makeup of their brain structure and chemistry."
How major events can lead to lasting changes: "These kinds of extreme events are life-changing events and when it occurs, it's very different than anything you've ever experienced, and it makes a strong impression on your brain. The memories stay. And the way you respond to things, it may not be pathological, necessarily, but you may be changed forever for having been through that kind of experience."
On dealing with stress: "Early on, people need to realize everybody is upset, everybody's shook up, and so not to worry about it at first; just take of yourself. But as time goes on, if these things don't start to get better, or they start to get worse, and the person finds themselves unable to function, or feeling intolerably bad, then it's probably time to seek professional attention to see if a psychiatric disorder has developed and to obtain some treatment for it.
"But for the people who aren't developing a psychiatric disorder, they should understand that these feelings do diminish in most people over time and that they probably should just take care of themselves, give themselves some time and space, and not have a lot of demands if possible, and just try to heal up. Take care of yourself. Eat well. Surround yourself with loved ones — that's a really important one. And if a person needs to talk about it, find people who will listen thoughtfully and talk."