We catch our breath as we hear that Virginia Tech has once again faced a shooting and the violent deaths of two people on campus. In this case seven minutes after police reported the shooting, students were informed and alerted by email, text, twitter and campus broadcast to stay where they were in locked down locations, to remain off campus or to be escorted to safety areas. As the students reported, they waited in fear for four hours uncertain of what would unfold. When told it was safe, they hesitated leaving.
As is the nature of trauma, those who faced this present trauma live in the shadow of the tragic past and those in the past may be re-awakened to the horror and loss they have been carrying. To a large degree many emotionally and physically once again bear witness to a terrifying and unimaginable event.
While a person’s reaction to trauma is a function of the personal meaning of the event to them, their physical and emotional proximity to the traumatic event as well as their personal history, we have come to know that as an initial help, Psychological First Aid (PFA) can mediate the impact of trauma and make possible steps toward healing.
Dealing with trauma across the timeline from acute impact to long term recovery, I have found personally and professionally that there are aspects of Psychological First Aid that are vital in helping and healing at any time.
Here are some suggestions worth knowing and owning in the aftermath of trauma and re-traumatization.
Once someone is out of physical and medical danger, the most viable way to establish a sense of psychological safety is connection with familiar networks of support – partners, family, friends, school or church communities. In cases as the Virginia Tech Shooting, often those who have faced the trauma together may become cohorts that for a time provide “ substantive validation” to each other.
Talking together as a validating peer group, meeting together with school counselors or even connecting on-line with family, friends and peers can reduce the isolation and terror. People heal in community. Connection helps normalize feelings and lightens the burden of trauma.
Making Meaning of Common Responses to Trauma
Validating and Normalizing the common stress responses experienced in the aftermath of trauma moves such responses from pathological to understandable. Making meaning of what we feel empowers us; it reduces the sense of helplessness and anxiety so common after trauma. The three common response groups include Hyperarousal, Intrusion and Numbing and Avoidance.
Hyperarousal or the Persistent Expectation of Danger
This is your human fight/flight response in the presence of danger. It is as if your mind and body does not yet know you are safe. Such hyperarousal is reflected in an inability to relax, exaggerated startle response, inability to sleep, concentrate, and irritability. Not everyone experiences this and such responses rarely last more than a few weeks for most. Strategies to address hyperarousal include:
Intrusion or Re-experiencing
Feeling caught in the imprint of the trauma, many re-experience the images or sensations felt at the time of trauma as nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive memories. While bewildering, they are the mind and body’s way of assimilating an incomprehensible event into life experience. Strategies to deal with them include:
Numbing and Avoidance
Numbing is a response to trauma that involves physical and psychological shutdown. Like the other responses to trauma, it is actually a functional way to survive in the face of overwhelming danger. When numbing persists if often unfolds into avoidance and isolation as an attempt to avoid triggers of traumatic memory or intolerable feelings of loss, grief or pain. The problem with avoidance is that it leaves a person alone with the trauma. It does not allow for the sharing, diluting, normalizing or integrating of a traumatic event. Strategies to deal with numbing and avoidance include:
Access You Coping Skills
In the aftermath of trauma, it can feel as if you are frozen in time with the trauma. The past seems gone and the future seems impossible. It is really important to reach behind the wall of trauma to your resiliency traits because they still belong to you and they are what you have drawn upon in life to cope in situations of pain, disappointment, adversity and even loss.
Whether you have just experienced the horror of the recent shooting at Virginia Tech, you are jolted by your loss from the last Virginia Tech Shooting or you have just re-visited the pain and assault of a personal trauma – you are not alone as you try your best to heal and hope.
Frightened boy photo available from Shutterstock.
This post currently has
You can read the comments or leave your own thoughts.
Last reviewed: 11 Dec 2011