Coping With Trauma and Avoiding Misconceptions (aftermath of Sandy Hook shootings)
Dr. Lynn Margolies
We are all shaken by the shooting at Sandy Hook. Traumatic events can shatter our sense of safety, predictability and meaning. Our vulnerability to the effects of trauma varies depending on various factors such as the amount of direct exposure. Exposure includes physical or emotional proximity: witnessing trauma, knowing or losing someone involved, identifying with the victims, and media exposure - especially in vulnerable populations such as children. The risk of post-traumatic stress reactions is affected, too, by temperament, previous trauma, pre-existing psychiatric conditions, social and community support.
Post-traumatic stress reactions can also be precipitated by less violent, more common events such as sudden death of a loved one and life-threatening illness. The nature of the trauma and how directly it affects our lives plays a role in its impact. Reactions to trauma vary and, in children, can include separation anxiety and reactions mistaken for typical tantrums, sleep problems, irritability, or behavior problems. Similarly, in adolescents, trauma can be disguised as teenage moodiness, acting out, and withdrawal.
When trauma takes hold, coping is overwhelmed. Traumatic events are not digested, and instead assume an orbit of their own, haunting the survivor. With post-traumatic reactions, the body’s built-in fight or flight survival response gets activated and won’t turn off, even when the danger is over.
Acute stress disorder, which can evolve into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if it persists beyond a month, is a neurobiological reaction to trauma involving amnesia, feelings of estrangement and unreality, and persistent increased arousal manifesting as irritability, insomnia, and startle reactions. Traumatic stress disorders are characterized by intense reactivity to reminders of what happened and intrusive re-experiencing through nightmares or flashbacks - alternating with avoidance of anything reminiscent of the event.
Children’s resilience in the face of trauma is impacted by how they understand what happened, the continuity of routine, and availability of support. A positive and secure parent-child attachment, parents’ mental health and parenting behaviors play a major protective role in buffering the effects of trauma on children.
We’re told to remind children that they’re safe and that scary things like this shooting are very rare. But our own perceptions and state of mind are internalized by children. Therefore, restoring our own equilibrium and calm protects us from unconsciously imposing our own fears onto them. Though it’s normal to feel overprotective or hyper-vigilant to regain a sense of control, such states can create fear and separation anxiety in children. Alternatively, when centered, we can notice how our children really feel and respond to their needs, not our own anxiety.
We’re all struggling to understand how anyone could commit the atrocity at Sandy Hook. The media offers an appealing scapegoat, honing in on the assailant’s alleged Asperger’s disorder, further alienating kids on the autism spectrum who already suffer isolation and bullying. Such stereotyping provides an easy target, simplifying people, and distancing us - similar to the effects of prejudice. Asperger’s can be associated with aggression and impulsivity; however, this is quite different than calculated mass violence, not a feature of this disorder.
Similarly, when asked how such an act could happen a medical correspondent said, “Well, that’s the face of mental illness,” reinforcing the public’s association of mental illness with violence. Mental illness alone does not cause violence and the mentally ill are, in fact, more often victims of bullying and violent crime than others. In very isolated cases, such victimization can create a context predisposing retaliation, but more often puts the victim at risk for depression and self-destruction.
Most of us function by maintaining an illusion of control over life with only dim awareness of possible catastrophe. A basic sense of security runs in the background of our psyche - like a computer operating system - imperceptible until it crashes. When our security is ripped away by trauma, we’re shocked and catapulted into a different reality. Suddenly the threat of danger and loss looms large, making us acutely aware that life is fragile.
But our children are no less safe today than they were before this isolated shooting, though our perception is different. Horrors, like this shooting, can traumatize us, but can also shift our perspective, making us grateful for our families and friends, and reminding us of what matters.
Resources:Justice Resource InstituteInternational Society for Traumatic Stress Studies