It happened. Too many times, as President Obama and others point out. The weariness of it, perhaps even complacency forming over it, can lead to tuning out tragedies like the Charleston church shooting as redundant, something expectable of American society. Besides, there’s nothing to be gained by forcing ourselves to watch.
The impact on those affected will be there all the same, beyond the tragic deaths: trauma for the injured, for those who observed it or whose loved ones were killed or injured, and sometimes even for those who watch or hear about it from afar.
We’ve heard it all before, the potential mental health effects of these experiences. Post-traumatic stress disorder gets the most press. But there are as many different potential reactions to trauma as there are people who experience it.
So what do we do about it? The authorities are always telling us to be prepared for disaster. How do you prepare for a mass casualty disaster? What do you do about this type of absurdity, the horrendous and unpredictable? Are we left only with looking for better ways to clean up whatever mess litters our psyches after the crisis passes? What can any one individual do in advance to fight the war on terrorism?
The answer: take back our vulnerability to terror. One person at a time.
Yes, tall words. Even taller-sounding expectations. Is it realistic to expect people to make themselves invulnerable to unpleasant emotions?
No. Nor would we want to feel like we were completely invulnerable. Our sense of vulnerability is an important asset, a system of scanning the world for threat, and avoiding or getting out of harm’s way when necessary. We wouldn’t last long without it. What we want to change is how this system might get out of whack.
While the science of how trauma affects mind and body is still new and growing, we do know that many long-term symptoms come from getting stuck in a traumatic experience. During crisis, temporarily shutting down emotion helps us think and act our way to safety. Afterwards, forgetting or not emotionally acknowledging it happened for a while gives the subconscious a chance to work it through, until we feel able to face it directly. Long-term problems arise if we don’t have an effective inner pathway for getting back again.
What’s the pathway back? It likely differs for everyone. Yet there’s a key moment common to us all in terms of how fears first form connections with memories of distressing events. This “consolidation window” is believed to be approximately the first five or six hours following trauma. Fewer longer-term symptoms are found among those who verbally “update” their perception of a distressing event during this consolidation window. Instead of letting fears and memories link as they will, they take control over what they say to themselves about what they had just been through. The link below describes a study that relates to this.
Each of us is capable of doing this on our own: develop a narrative to use when circumstances seem overwhelming. Its theme should follow whatever works for us, for our own worldview:
“I have what it takes to get past something like this.”
“God spared me from this one. He has a plan for me.”
“This is so hard to believe. But I made it. I am safe.”
“Incidents like this have happened for millennia. People pick up the pieces and go on.”
“I will learn something new about my strengths during this that will serve me for the rest of my life.”
“I felt safe in the world before this happened, even though disaster was always a possibility. I will feel safe again, once this has passed.”
“It is written that I experience disaster. I, however, write how I proceed beyond it.”
In other words, you write a personal narrative that downplays the horror, rather than plays it up. It must be on hand in advance. Composing something like this is very difficult after the fight-or-flight system has kicked in.
Cognitive-behavioral methods have been used for some time to relieve symptoms of PTSD, a condition that forms months or years after the crisis has passed. Why not let them do their work before symptoms have a chance to take reign?
Terror is an individual experience. But we respond as a community. Be a part of it. Take back our sense of wellbeing. Weave a safety net for comforting yourself; wrap yourself in it and hold it close, whatever form it takes. We are resilient.
For more information, see “Can Traumatic Memories Be Changed,” offered by the National Institution for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.