The news that innocent people have been hurt and killed by the hand of a violent, angry man once again grabs the news. This time, in a movie theatre as the latest blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises,
Trauma is an unexpected, derailing experience. For those who are in its direct line, it crushes the mind, body and soul. For those of us who witness it, we reel in waves of horror – helpless and saddened by it all.
One of the ways to restore a sense of security after a mass tragedy is to understand why things like this happen, and then move into action mode to help yourself and loved ones heal.
The conscious motives of anyone who acts with terrifying violence is to destabilize society and evoke mass reactions. Unable to discharge needs of control and aggression by conventional means, a terrorist chooses a chilling and merciless way to get the recognition he seeks. Equally important to the effectiveness of the violent act are those who witness its wake. In this age of technology and 24 hour news programming, the accounts of shocking happenings are delivered with immediacy, and can be viewed, re-viewed, and revisited at the push of a button. Through the horror, the terrorist hopes that your basic security is jarred, that your identity to community is shattered, and that you’re belief system will be shaken.
Deeply aggrieved by a world he feels is cruel, loads the gun - but it is the added sense of entitlement that pulls the trigger. This aggrieved entitlement inspires the terrorist to revenge against those who have wronged him. It is a phenomenon that fuses the humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation to avenge it to get it back. Often, the targets he rages against are collective innocents, individuals not directly responsible for his perceived misery.
The unconscious motive of an act of terror is to destroy objects and people because they are sources of unbearable feelings of envy. The violence emerges from historical rage, grief, dread and pain, congealing into the need to annihilate others. It is a dangerous, bitter brine. When his murderous rage is acted out - and victims are put through horror, cruelty and unspeakable loss - he transcends his own pain.
Well-being begins with education. Understanding what psychological trauma is and how it bears down on your biological, chemical and psychological makeup is the first step toward recovery. Psychological trauma is a unique individual experience where you feel emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed. Some people freeze, needing to rest or detach from the tragedy. If that's what you works best for you, unplug and do so. Others feel the need to be active and busy to move through the horrifying event. Be it resting or moving, the goal here is to keep you from shifting into hyperarousal (a series of extreme anxiety reactions).
Once the traumatic event is over, doesn’t mean your reaction to it is over. The intrusion of the past into the present is one of the main problems confronting anyone who witnesses or experiences trauma. This is often referred to as re-experiencing. The re-experiencing may present as distressing intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or overwhelming emotional states. It's also important to know that witnessing crimes against humanity may raise anticipatory anxiety, where you're not only reeling from the trauma that just occurred, but are perched in a state of anxiety of what may come next. "Could this happen in my hometown?" Though many of these symptoms are normal in the recovery process, if your trauma reaction doesn't reduce within a few days, it would be wise to seek a health professional for consultation.
Tips for You and Your Family
Now that you have some understanding about trauma and violent aggression, learn how to keep your children and yourself tethered to the good things in the world.
- Model calm and control. Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives so make sure you ground yourself with a sense of stability regarding this issue.
- Reassure children that they are safe and so are the other important adults in their lives. Show them the added police presence and other factors that are being used to provide safety and security in your neighborhood – as well as at the crime scene.
- Remind them that the percentage of people in the world are kind and trustworthy – and that only a small number of individuals are violent in this way.
- Tell children the truth. Don’t try to pretend the event hasn’t occurred or that it’s not serious. Children are smart. They’ll be more worried if you avoid the subject or gloss over it.
- Stick to the facts. Don’t embellish or speculate about the mass trauma. Don’t dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children. Early school age children will need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done in their cities and towns. High school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in their community.
- Let children know that it’s okay to feel upset. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy like this occurs. Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective. Let them know that you’re struggling with sadness about this event too.
- Limit your child’s television viewing of these events. If they must watch, watch with them for a brief time; then turn the set off. Don’t sit mesmerized re-watching the same events over and over again.
- Maintain a “normal” routine. Stick to your family’s normal daily routine. This predictability grounds everyone and doesn’t allow the trauma to break your resiliency.
- Monitor your own stress level. Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talk with your partner, friends, family members. Make sure you get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise too.
- Remind yourself of the goodness in life. It’s important to remember that while darkness may rise, it will never, ever triumph.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – From domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.
Hudson, R. (1999). The sociology and psychology of terrorism: Who becomes a terrorist and why? Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
Kalish, R. & Kimmel, M. (2010). Suicide by mass murder. Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and rampage school shootings. Health Sociology Review,19(4): 451-464.
Pine, D.S., Costello, J. & Masten, A. (2005). Trauma, proximity, and developmental psycho-pathology: The effects of war and terrorism on children. Neuropsychopharmacology, 30, 1781–1792.
Serani, D. (2004). Expanding the frame: Psychoanalysis after 9-11. Bulleting of the Menninger Clinic, 68(1): 1-8.
Dr. Deborah Serani, author of the award winning ”Living with Depression” by Rowman and Littlefield, is a go-to expert on the subject of depression.