Where were you when you first heard about the bombings at the Boston Marathon? You can probably recall that moment quite vividly. You may have some clear recollection of what happened just beforehand; a particular detail of where you were standing when you saw or heard the news can bring it all back with vivid immediacy. Even now, a month later, you may be able to tap into those initial thoughts and feelings. You may notice a cascade of mental associations that have become connected to your memories of that event.
Whether or not you were in Boston on April 15, 2013, or a runner, or in any way connected to the race, your first thought was, no doubt, about your own safety, perhaps quickly followed by concern for the safety of friends and family. You may have taken particular actions, whether those of protection or assistance.
To get on with our daily lives, we live in a “bubble” of sorts. We assume that extreme events aren’t going to happen. When, on occasion, terrible things do occur, our basic belief about safety is, at least for a time, disrupted. Dr. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman wrote about this powerfully in her book, Shattered Assumptions: Toward a New Psychology of Trauma. Our fundamental assumptions—that the world is essentially benevolent, that it is meaningful, and that we have worth—become challenged.
We respond variously to this hugely disruptive kind of situation, based on many factors: our personality, our own past experiences, our usual support system, and others’ reactions and responses.
In this blog series, I’m sharing with you three stories. These three people are marathon runners; they were in Boston on April 15; and they were in Toronto, Canada three weeks later, at the Toronto Marathon.
On April 16, I contacted the Race Director for the Toronto Marathon, offering Psyching Team services to anyone directly or indirectly affected by Boston. We had heard and read of the out-pouring of caring and connection in Boston…but how might it be for runners coming to Toronto? What types of concerns or memories might they be coping with?
I received a note from a Boston participant. I’ll call her Fran. (The people who I’m quoting in this series have given me permission to quote them. I’ve disguised the runners’ names.) She had just returned to the Toronto area and told this story:
When the bombs exploded, Fran was in the race’s medical tent: she had completed the race but had been injured and was hooked up to medical equipment. She watched from her gurney as injured runners and supporters walked or were wheeled into the medical tent. As if running 26.2 miles, being injured, and witnessing the horrific effects of the bombing weren’t enough, Fran also commented that, for some time prior, she had been dealing with panic, depression, and discomfort being in large crowds. She anticipated that the psychiatrist that she works with would be helpful. She wrote: “As the shock begins to wear off and reality sinks in, I am worried about the ability to get myself back to the start line. Is this common? Do you have any tips for managing worry and stress about attending similar events?”
I responded by commending Fran on entering and completing Boston. (You, dear reader, may or may not know that the Boston Marathon is the mecca of marathons. Not just anyone can enter. You need to meet stringent time standards from a prior marathon in order to qualify for entry.) I commented on the psychologically and physically compromising situation she was in at the time of the bombings. I gave her a link to a website that might offer her some useful supports and information about coping with disaster.
And I responded directly to her questions:
• It's very common for people to generalize from one situation to another—especially if they're predisposed to do that in a “there's danger all around” kind of way, so I'm not surprised that you're already concerned about how you might approach a future race. I would encourage you to let things settle a bit...and then to begin thinking that through in a systematic way.
• In the meanwhile, what are you doing or can you do to feel some levels of control in your life, some aspects of life that are enjoyable and supportive?
• In terms of what you might do—I don't want to step on the toes of your relationship with your psychiatrist and however you and she are dealing with and managing the panic that you experience. Overall, I suggest that you do small things that feel manageable but are a bit of a stretch. Panic is nasty; it has the capacity to keep on growing and attaching to more and more things if it's not addressed and challenged.
Three weeks post-Boston, just after the Toronto Marathon, I checked in with Fran. Her response: “I am doing well adjusting, I was out on the course at the Toronto Marathon, taking pictures and cheering on team mates, I have already raced since Boston, a small race nearby; I will be doing a marathon at the end of the month. I am working on getting myself psychologically ready for that race and the crowds and any emotion I may carry going into it.”
Coming up: A story of post-traumatic stress
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