VICTIMS of violence, or those involved in terrifying events, such as the recent fire-bombing of the Hongkong Bank, may suffer long-term damage to their health that can last long after any physical injury has healed.

The symptoms of this underlying illness can be slow to develop, but they can strike anyone who has been through a severely traumatic experience, be it a serious car accident, a fire or a robbery, and can last for years.

Called post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS), this psychological condition was first identified in US soldiers as they began to return from the war in Vietnam. Today, the medical fraternity has come to recognise it as a serious problem affecting not only soldiers but also anyone who has gone through a particularly disturbing or horrific time.

PTSS can develop immediately after such an event, or the person may go through a 'numb' period first, a psychiatrist explained. But he stressed that the experience would have to be extremely distressing to trigger the condition. A divorce, for example, though stressful, would not cause PTSS.

Symptoms include anxiety and distress, crying, screaming, sweating, heart palpitations, difficulty in breathing, dizziness and muscle spasms. Nightmares and phobias can also occur, said the doctor. These sensations can come on suddenly or be triggered by a situation that reminds the sufferer of the horror of the event.

Someone who is attacked by a dog could find himself having anxiety attacks whenever he sees one. Very often people who are involved in severe motor vehicle accidents find themselves suffering these symptoms when they use the same form of transport again.

'Someone who has been in a fire could become anxious if they saw a fire engine or smelt smoke. Another example is that of a taxi driver whose car was hijacked by robbers and he was forced to drive them while the police gave chase. After this ordeal he suffered from serious PTSS and if anyone opened the taxi door he would jump out and run away,' said the psychiatrist.

'It is important to seek professional help in the early stages,' he added. 'As with any illness, it may be self-limiting and sufferers may just find they get better naturally, but usually it is not. The sooner someone is treated the better, otherwise theysuffer unnecessarily and start losing confidence as they start feeling worse about themselves. There is also a danger that if someone lets the attacks go on and on, he becomes depressed and starts making changes in his lifestyle - for example, avoiding transport if he was involved in a motor vehicle accident - and the syndrome may become incurable.' Psychiatric treatment involves anti-depressants, sedatives and counselling. 'By controlling the symptoms (with medication), the person is better able to psychologically work through the problem. After they have done this a few times and gained confidence,they can then do it without the help of medication,' he said.

Because part of the therapy involves helping the person to re-experience the event, first in the mind and then eventually at the scene, it can be upsetting initially. 'People don't want to remember the pain, but as they recall the trauma over and over again with a therapist and in a relaxed and safe setting, their fears lessen in intensity. It gets easier as they are able to express their feelings,' he said.

According to the psychiatrist, the condition is curable in most cases if the person seeks help promptly. In some cases, however, it is a slow process and can take months of counselling and treatment before the person fully recovers.