Future Trauma Effects on 33 Chilean Miners

The whole world watched with hope and anticipation as the 33 Chileans trapped in a collapsed mine were rescued. We all experienced the joy and relief as they emerged from the 22-inch wide tube that saved them.

But what can the miners expect to feel in the days following their ordeal? Besides the injuries they suffered, which will heal with time, the trauma of the event may haunt them for years to come.

Trauma is the body’s biological reaction to a life threatening event and the physical responses the brain sends to the body for one purpose–survival. If the movements these responses trigger are not completed, or if they are ineffective, the signals from the brain will continue to fire off messages to the body to protect itself that will develop into various symptoms later in life–sometimes much later. From the nature of this calamity, we can predict to a certain extent what may crop up later.At the onset of the cave-in, one can imagine the neck jerking to turn the head and orient the eyes to the sound of the collapse, while the arms flew up to protect the head. This response may later show up as excruciating neck and shoulder pain, even if no injury occurred. Ringing in the ears can also be expected along with a duck-and-cover reaction to any loud, rumbling noise such as thunder. The eyes and face could also develop a nervous tick, remnants of the facial muscles’ reflex to protect the head, something seen in combat veterans.

But a better incomplete response would be exemplified by the survival urge to either flee or fight. This response is automatic. But in the case of a cave-in, there is nowhere to run and there is nothing to fight. This means the body will freeze along with the legs, used for fleeing, and the arms and fists, used for fighting.

From the freeze one can expect the miners to experience extreme fatigue later, as if their limbs are too heavy to move. This may even incapacitate them and be misdiagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Or perhaps they will dissociate and try to leave their bodies, either by sleeping and nodding off constantly or through drugs and alcohol. But the opposite is also possible: extreme paranoia and fear (flight) or intense anger (fight). Although which symptoms they manifest will depend on each miner, all will take a toll on their livelihoods and on their relationships.

Another symptom that could manifest will be lung problems. As the collapse sent clouds of dirt swirling through the mine, the miner’s lungs were presented with a problem: they must breathe to live, but to breathe could also choke and kill them. This physiological dilemma will stay with them for years, and they will find themselves prone to shortness of breath, which will produce anxiety and fear, and more serious ailments such asthma and pneumonia.

The good news is that there are excellent trauma therapies available, such as Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing, that could help the miners discharge the brain’s signals and release the trauma symptoms from their bodies. It is an effective and gentle treatment that works in a short amount of time. The bad news is that there are many popular trauma therapies that do little to help, some using affirmations and wishful thinking or energy-work to address a physiological problem, and some that actually retraumatize by having the survivor relive the incident.

It is comforting to think that the miners are now safe and everything will be alright for them. But the effects of their traumas will begin to emerge now that the songs of celebration have been sung. For some it will be immediate: for others, a little later. But with help from a good trauma specialist, hope and salvation can truly be realized for these brave men and their families who suffered so much and survived.

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