Grief & Loss

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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Cory, a veteran police officer, draws his gun just as a bullet whizzes through his hair, grazing his scalp.

Emma, a bank employee freezes when a gunman holds her hostage for several hours in the safe room.

Anthony, a military officer in Afghanistan, runs through crossfire to retrieve the corpses of his buddies.


These images are all too familiar to TV audiences, but nothing can simulate a near-death experience like the ones described by Cory, Emma and Anthony.

They all suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs after someone is exposed to a life-threatening traumatic event. Commonly this happens after coming back from a war zone, but it can happen after any traumatic or life-threatening event.

Although many people experience very disturbing things in war or security situations, not everyone will develop PTSD. Both the Canadian Department of National Defence, and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs that 11 to 24 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD.

The prevalence of PTSD in the general population is about 7 to 8 per cent.

What are the signs?

Fight or flight is an instinctual human reaction in the face of extreme danger, when you have milliseconds to decide whether to run away to safety or to fight to defend yourself. After a traumatic event, this ”flight or fight” reaction in the body is damaged and the person freezes up when sensations, images, or feelings they had at that time recur in the here and now.

Physiological signs of fear, like rapid heartbeat and profuse sweating activate emotions of acute fear and strong normal responses to threatening situations often appear in PTSD sufferers in situations where there is no danger present.

PTSD usually develops within three months of the traumatic event, but can occur much later in life.


Some of these symptoms are referred to as Re-experiencing symptoms. These include flashbacks of the event, which can bring extreme stress on not only the mind, but also the body in terms of sweating or a racing heart. Bad dreams and frightening thoughts are also typical. The traumas from the past become torturous again, in the present.

Avoiding Triggers

The next category is Avoidance symptoms. This is when the sufferer goes to extremes to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. This can cause people to change their clothing, hair, and even to quit their job to avoid things that trigger memories and to have deep feelings of shame or guilt.


The last category of symptoms is called Hyper-arousal symptoms. This is when a PTSD sufferer becomes very easily stressed or fearful for their safety, such as checking that doors and windows are locked, feeling suspicious of parked cars, strangers and anything they used to consider benign.  This effect of being easily startled can also lead to angry outbursts, constant vigilance for possible signs of danger, and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. These symptoms make people more vulnerable to overuse of drugs and alcohol.


Unfortunately there is still a stigma surrounding PTSD. Because it can be such a terrifying and disruptive mental state, sufferers can be labeled as “crazy,” “dangerous,” or “violent.” Other stigmas are general beliefs that since in today’s wars people chose to go to combat, in a sense they brought it on themselves.

Many PTSD sufferers reported that they avoided early treatment because they did not want to be considered to have a mental illness. However, PTSD can be cured through different forms of therapy.

Group treatment programs for PSTD are delivered over 6 to 12 weeks, while individual therapy is customized to each person’s needs.

What happened to them?

Cory was in psychotherapy for 11 months, and eventually retired from the force  to work as an investment advisor. He sometimes remembers the trauma, but can now deal with stressful feelings realistically.

Emma was off work for six months before she was able to step foot in the bank again.  With the help of a psychologist, she eventually felt strong enough to return to her job.

Anthony was released from the military after intensive individual and group psychotherapy.  He still has survivor guilt. He works part-time as a security guard.     

A psychologist can help you learn more about PTSD and its effects, deal with explosive anger, and help you become aware of the signs leading to a recurrence.

If you or someone you know is struggling with post traumatic stress it would be a good idea to schedule an appointment with a registered psychologist.


Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisherFacebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
All rights reserved. Copyright protected.
Photo Credits: Oscar in
the middle Alan

Misplaced Memories

You walk into a room, determined to find something. You start rummaging around, opening some drawers, looking on desktops-only to realize you have no idea what you are actually looking for. You leave the room, shaking your head, maybe amused by your absent mindedness or perhaps a little worried. In a couple minutes, hours or even days, the memory floods back in and you remember exactly what it was you were searching for.

Of course, we’ve all been there- but do situations like this and other lapses in memory increase as you get older? Or, is it more likely that a 20-year old just shakes this off as something funny, whereas it might be cause for concern for a 50 year old?

Scientists say memory loss is perfectly normal. As you get older, you’ll notice parts of your body weakening and that isn’t limited to your biceps. Parts of the brain can also become weaker over time as a natural process of aging; however, virtually everyone deals with memory loss and can be proactive in trying to prevent it.

Here are some of the main memory problems that people of all ages deal with, according to the Harvard Review.

Transience– This is when you lose memories over time in order to make way for new ones. This isn’t necessarily bad as it clears your mind of the memories you don’t often use- kind of like throwing away the single sock you’ve had sitting at the back of a drawer for years. So, if you don’t want to forget something, think about it often.

Absentmindedness- this happens when you weren’t paying close enough attention to the task at hand. Much like the example in the opening paragraph, if your mind didn’t concentrate on something, you become more likely to forget. Absentmindedness causes people to lose things, get lost or be a little clumsy.

Blocking- Ahh, you know what it means, is it, umm something about not remembering words and, you just saw it, not transience, but something  with the letter t- right! Tongue! It’s when you have something on the tip of your tongue that you temporarily can’t recall but still know. Usually it’s due to a competing memory, which may be similar but not the one you were looking for.

Misattribution- You could have sworn your teacher told you about his trip to London but it was actually your friend’s dad. This is when you have partial recollection of an event but get a detail wrong, such as where you got the information from.

Suggestibility- Remember that time you and your friends went to a party where Peter did a black flip and broke the table? No, well not really, kind of, I guess. Even if you don’t really remember something, it is possible for the power of suggestion to create false memories. Scientists are still studying this phenomenon; here is an interesting article on it.

Bias- As hard as you may try to avoid it, memories are always tainted by past and present biases, moods and attitudes. When a memory is encoded your bias influences your memory of the event.

There are ways of preventing memory loss as you age. Harvard Health Publications offer seven ways to keep your mind sharp that you can start doing at any age. They recommend physical exercise, learning new skills, eating nutritious foods, sleeping well, and surrounding yourself with a good social support system.

These recommendations will not only improve your memory, but also help your overall physical and mental health.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisherFacebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
All rights reserved. Copyright protected.

Not so happy Holidays

blog-not-so-happy-holidaysThe holiday season is here, and many of us are humming carols and preparing for a perfect celebration. We anticipate happy gift exchanges, good times catching up with family, and general harmony, but all these expectations will inevitably lead to some disappointments.

Sometimes there is a past holiday season that seems ideal in our memory that we are just unable to recreate, and instead what comes up at the holiday gathering is arguments from years past or old sibling rivalries.


A full life as an Empty-nester

blog-empty-nesterThose feelings of sadness when your children leave home are commonly referred to as empty nest syndrome.

Women are often affected by this stage of life, which coincides with menopause and other stressors. When children no longer need consistent attention, many women find themselves having to care for their elderly parents.

Children leaving home can bring up conflicted feelings of happiness, pride and grief. After raising children who can go out into the world independently, it can be hard to re-focus on personal needs that had to be put aside in the child-rearing years.


Endless grief

Like many men, Rob didn’t want to talk about his brother’s death, and certainly not to a psychologist. He came to therapy believing that asking for help meant he was either crazy or too weak to solve his own problems.

But Rob couldn’t explain his behavior to anyone, least of all to himself. He sat in my office with his arms folded, as if challenging me to explain it to him. Since his brother’s death three years ago, his uncharacteristic recklessness and anger had alerted his family doctor, who had provided the referral to see me.


A Time to Weep and a Time to Dance

During the early 1900s, psychologists began to study the acute emotional distress that follows the loss of a loved one, such as the loss of a spouse or a child’s loss of a parent. They found that the intensity of emotional reactions to loss and death had been largely underestimated, whether the griever was an adult or a child.

The death of a loved one is perhaps the most acutely painful experience faced in life. Not only is grieving painful to experience, it is equally painful to onlookers, who are reminded of their helplessness in the face of death. The bereaved person is often inconsolable, feeling that the loved one’s absence has created an emptiness  that can never be filled.


Loving and leaving

With the holidays approaching, many couples are asking whether they should break off their dead-end relationship now, or stay together through the holidays and end it afterwards.

“December is break-up bonanza, at least according to a Facebook survey by David McCandles and Lee Byron, designers who tracked the words “break-up” and “broken up” across 10,000 status updates,” writes Zosia Bielski in a Globe and Mail article titled The Christmas Breakup: Dropping the mistletoe bomb. “[They] discovered that splits spike dramatically two weeks before Christmas.”


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