RODALE NEWS, LENOX, PA—Not long ago, we celebrated with a billion others around the world the dramatic rescue of the trapped Chilean miners. The 33 men emerged from the narrow capsule into a totally new life than the one they had left 69 days earlier—a world that will challenge them with instant celebrity and with the task of rebuilding their irrevocably changed lives. At the same time, in their inner worlds, they’ll face the challenge of coping with the enduring memories of their ordeal.
Many of the men will, understandably, want to leave the painful memories of their torturous ordeal behind them, buried below the surface. They'll want to move on with their lives, and not reexperience the excruciating trauma of those weeks of confinement. But memories are likely to haunt the miners, especially memories from their first 17 days of being trapped without contact with the outside world. In those first weeks, they survived on a teaspoonful of tuna fish and a few sips of polluted water a day. Enduring horrific conditions for what must have seemed like an eternity, they were subject to overwhelming feelings of terror, helplessness, and despair. And as the jubilation of their rescue wears off, they’ll be more vulnerable to a re-surfacing of those emotions.
THE DETAILS: Like many trauma survivors, these men are at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 15 to 30 percent of survivors of natural disasters develop the condition. For PTSD sufferers, the emotional impact of the painful experience is effectively seared into their brain and nervous system, causing after-effects like panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, phobias, irritability, social withdrawal, depression, and various physical symptoms. There are more people, and families, affected by post-traumatic stress disorder than you may think. The condition is common among combat veterans, disaster survivors, victims of violence and abuse, and individuals who have experienced painful accidents and intrusive medical procedures.
The miners will be offered six months of psychological counseling, which is a very good thing. With the development of new treatments to help heal trauma, therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder has become very effective over the past 20 years. Among those developments is critical incident debriefing, which encourages survivors to talk about what happened to them and to verbalize their emotional reaction to it. In an environment of support and understanding, they express their feelings, make sense of what happened, and meaningfully integrate that traumatic experience into the fabric of their life. Another powerfully effective treatment is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). In this therapy, patients recall painful experiences while simultaneously moving their eyes back and forth, tracking an object moving across their visual field. The combination of reexperiencing memories, attending to an outside stimulus, and reappraising their past experience helps to reduce the event's residual emotional impact. The result is that PTSD patients are no longer at the mercy of their painful memories. Instead, they come into a more empowered relationship to the traumatic experience. They can directly face it and meaningfully integrate it into the narrative of their life.