The horrific scene in Las Vegas likely left millions of children and adults traumatized. Sadly, mass shootings are becoming part of a new reality that can create emotional scars for years to come unless we are able to heal from them. At these times of senseless tragedy, words of comfort are not enough.
Whether you witnessed the gunfire personally, acted as a first responder, knew people who attended the concert, or watched the news coverage on television, your autonomic nervous system was shaken by this traumatic event. According to trauma specialist, Dr. Sharon Stanley, these events trigger memories that reside in our bodies from prior life traumas, hijacking the vagal circuits of our brains. The result: We experience fear and terror throughout our body-mind system.
Adults and children have stories of trauma that are held in their physical memories. Thousands of miles from Las Vegas, people responded to this tragedy through their own bodies and emotions. They might have been combat veterans, survivors of 9-11, parents of the Sandy Hook shooting, and others who have been touched by profound loss and terror.
As people watched the news coverage from what is now the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, many were overcome with unspeakable grief for the victims. But then, as Dr. Stanley suggested, the shooting likely triggered memories of their own traumas, often immobilizing them with fear. Embodied trauma causes feelings of anxiety, panic, abandonment, worthlessness, and other core emotional experiences.
Our body’s reaction to the shooting in Las Vegas is an example of the autonomic nervous system at work during times of stress. In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017), Dr. Robert Sapolsky, suggests that the autonomic nervous system is more powerful than our thoughts and emotions. It’s a part of the brain that is not changed through logic, words, or avoidance.
Our reactions to trauma create persistent patterns in our autonomic nervous systems that can live on throughout our lives, and can even be transmitted to the next generation, according to Dr. Stephen Porges in The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. These universal neural processes are why the victims of mass shootings, and survivors of many types of trauma, relive their experiences in their bodies each time a new tragic event occurs.
Amidst this background of neuroscientific evidence that all of us have embodied trauma, there is positive news. When we attend to the effects of trauma on our brain, research suggests we and our children can build and strengthen our abilities to adapt to the many adversities of modern life.
An empathetic and safe relationship with a skilled person can regulate the effects of trauma on the brain. Sharon Stanley, Ph.D., author of Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing Trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past, suggests that specific interventions can restore the autonomic nervous system.
I reached out to Stanley to find out how parents, teachers, counselors, and other helpers can be most effective in helping others feel safe and heal from trauma after a tragedy such as the shooting in Las Vegas. She provided the following brain-based intervention, grounded in research.
This step-by-step process for calming and restoring the autonomic nervous system can help transform fear into resilience. It is designed to be used by an empathetic, compassionate adult to help others process trauma. To heal from past, unresolved traumas, Stanley recommends working with a professional in the field of trauma and body-based therapies.