Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
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San Bruno Fire: Dealing with the Trauma

by Carol Campbell, MFT

For the residents of San Bruno, California, September 9, 2010, will be a date etched in memories forever. On that day an enormous explosion of a natural gas pipeline turned a neighborhood into a towering inferno of death and destruction. Such an unexpected and overwhelming experience of terror, horror, loss, pain, and rage is not forgotten. How does a person manage to keep going in life having survived such an unspeakable shock? How does one return to something resembling normality?

Human beings are fundamentally resilient creatures. However, how any one person will respond to trauma is determined by a range of factors. Some people are more anxious by temperament, and may therefore have a longer and more problematic recovery. Some people are strongly defended by denial, the ability to push bad feelings out of awareness. At least on the surface of things they may seem to bounce back more quickly.

Some people may develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a syndrome that can arise as a result of the person experiencing fear of serious injury or death, or threat to their physical integrity or to someone else's. The emotional experience of the trauma is one of horror, extreme fright, and helplessness. PTSD can start right away, or have a delayed onset, in which case the symptoms appear months or years later.

Someone with PTSD from the San Bruno fire may repeatedly re-experience the event in their minds, as if it is happening all over again. They might want to avoid anything that reminds them of it. They might be emotionally numb, unresponsive, or excessively aroused about it. They might have an exaggerated startle reflex, trouble sleeping, or trouble concentrating. PTSD interferes with normal functioning in life.

Marriage and family therapists, along with other mental health professionals, can help minimize the trauma associated with horrific events such as the San Bruno fire. Two people might have the same awful experience, and one feel seriously traumatized and the other come away thinking that while they had undergone a horrible experience, life is still OK and they soon look forward to what lies ahead. What makes the difference?

Trauma is the result of feeling alone in a helpless situation. The key to not experiencing the fire as a lasting trauma is to not have the sense of having endured it alone. Anyone who was affected by the explosion and fire — which would include anyone watching the newscasts about it — would be wise to talk to someone about what they experienced. To have one's experience deeply understood by a caring person is the key. That is why licensed professionals such as marriage and family therapists are so helpful. They are trained to provide therapeutic responses, as opposed to what lay persons might unwittingly offer.

Comments like these are at the least unhelpful, and possibly seriously harmful: "It could have been worse — look on the bright side." "Other people suffered more than you did." "It's all part of God's plan — you just can't see why yet." "You think you were scared — I was completely freaked out." "Let's not think about it any more." "I don't want to hear about it." "Let's think of something cheerful to talk about." "Why do you keep bringing that awful story up?"

Help is readily available for dealing with trauma. Sometimes therapists use modalities designed to change cognitive patterns, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). With EMDR the patient is led to have two things happening simultaneously: remembering the trauma, and feeling a strong awareness of the present moment as safe. EMDR is widely used to treat war related trauma, and trauma of abuse.

Many times a new trauma is difficult because it becomes linked in the mind to previous unresolved traumas. More intensive and long term therapy may be advised in that case. Psychodynamic psychotherapies and psychoanalysis have been shown to be very helpful with resolving trauma and anxieties. Research cited by Harvard Medical School's Harvard Mental Health Letter of September 2010 demonstrates that psychodynamic therapies are evidence based treatments that are highly effective, and often have stronger long term effects than cognitive based therapies.

The San Bruno fire has created a massive psychological challenge for residents of the area. The greatest need is for each person affected to be able to speak as often and as long as necessary to attain the crucial sense of not feeling alone in their helplessness associated with the event. Both children and adults may be greatly aided in this endeavor by receiving the services of a marriage and family therapist or other licensed mental health professional. A helpful resource is, provided by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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