The very public trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, and the Colorado theater shooting suspect, named James Holmes, put images and stories about these traumatic events once again in front of the public.
In the period of the phases of the Boston Marathon bombing trial, testimony from survivors and first responders and graphic images of the bombing, were front and center on television, the internet and print media. The survivors of the Colorado Theater soothing have vividly described in their trial testimony that night in detail. Their terror and anguish were about seeing the ones that they loved dead or even dying.
So, which are the psychological, as well as the health effects of exposure to traumatic events like these?
What is trauma?
Traumatic events are those experiences which are perceived to be threats to the safety or stability of a person. Those experiences cause physical, as well as emotional and psychological stress or harm. In other words, these are events which fall outside, the range of ordinary experience. Reactions to these events vary according to the person.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as the psychological, as well as emotional responses to those terrible events.
Traumatic events are not always violent. They can range from moving somewhere new to a mass disaster or even war.
For a lot of people, trauma is experienced during and immediately after some event. But, for many of them, the trauma may be relived for months or even years. For example, the aftereffects of the September 11 attacks.
Common psychological, as well as emotional reactions to traumatic experiences, include some intense emotions, nightmares, and flashback. In addition, they cause eating and sleeping disturbances, and panic reactions to smells of relationship problems. They can even cause sudden noises or irritability and physical symptoms. You may feel like you about to become crazy. But, it is important to remember that these are natural reactions to abnormal, traumatic experiences.
There also exists evidence that one does not have to be directly exposed to the traumatic event to be affected by it. Some researchers have demonstrated that negative psychological, as well as emotional effects, can happen with media exposure.
For example, a lot of people watched repeated television coverage and graphic images from September 11. According to one study, people that watched media reports of the attacks experienced post-traumatic stress, as well as physical health symptoms for years afterward.
People do not recover from trauma in the same way.
As a crisis counselor after the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999, one person witnessed those effects. In the days, as well as hours after the shootings, the person says that they provided emergency crisis intervention not only to students that had been trapped in the school but also to family members, even to neighbors of the victims.
The following weeks, as well as months, those people who have been the witnesses of the events unfold on television came in for counseling due to nightmares, as well as high anxiety, depression, all of this attributed to the images they had witnessed in the media. These included not just the people that lived in Littleton, Colorado area near the high school. Furthermore, people from all over the metropolitan Denver area were included.
Over the next few years, the person says he was teaching at a local university campus in Denver. He had several former Columbine students in his classes. He says they have graduated from school, but they also never fully recovered from that trauma. Some noises that were coming from the hall made them jump. A fire alarm set off during one class period which produced some to panic, but not all.
Not every one of us has the same reaction to trauma or recovers in the same way, or in a set time frame.
According to some researchers, there is wide variability in recovery from trauma with few indications as to who will recover relatively quickly and who will not.
The coping strategies of a person – how we deal with adverse situations – may be one of how people protect themselves, provided that the coping behaviors themselves are positive. These can also include talking to a supportive friend. Moreover, joining a support group, allowing time to adjust and reestablishing routines.
Poor coping responses such as giving up, denial and avoiding talking about the event are associated with a proper recovery from trauma. This can mean more negative symptoms like continued depression and flashback. It can also be an emotional numbing and difficulty in and with connections.
After suffering trauma, it is not unusual for victims to find themselves eventually getting divorced. For instance, they have become distant from or even abusive toward their spouse. When a person tended toward depression or other mental health problems before the traumatic event happened which can influence on how well he or she recovered from the trauma.
New trauma can bring back old memories
Additionally, people with histories of previous trauma like combat veterans may be more vulnerable to the effect of new traumatic events.
There is a study of military veterans affected by the Boston Marathon bombing. The researchers have found that a lot of the veterans reported flashbacks to combat experiences, elevated anxiety, psychological numbness, nightmares and heightened anger.
We have heard stories from some students and therapy clients about traumatic events in the news suddenly, reminding them of events which happened many years in the past.
One of those students, upon seeing the media coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, said that he couldn’t understand why he suddenly remembered the period when his dog was run over by a car just in front of him when he was only seven years old. He also reported that he experienced his memory of the death of his dog like it occurred just yesterday. Such seemingly unconnected events may have been related in his memory by the same emotional reaction to each of the events.
How can people cope with trauma?
What can people do to alleviate the negative aftereffects of this type of events to return to their normal daily lives? The American Psychological Association recommends making some connections with other people. Furthermore, it recommends accepting change, meeting problems head-on and taking care of yourself.
One thing which is also important is to remember that one never completely forgets such events. Even professionals suggest that forgetting is not the goal of recovery. Healthy recovery also involves acknowledging that the events were terrible. However, at the same time not permitting them to interfere with daily living. Even if ten years later a sudden noise triggers momentary fear.
We encourage people to search for professional help in the effects to become overwhelming. These are not just common sense recommendations, but they are backed by decades of research.
You should remember that recovery is not easy. However, it is possible, as well as that those emotional and psychological reactions are normal responses to abnormal situations.