How to process trauma during tragedies

The newly renovated Samuel Dixon Family Health Center in Val Verde. Courtesy photo
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By Raychel Stewart

For The Signal

For many, Thursday’s tragedy created traumatic memories, and PTSD can be a struggle after incidents like the shooting at Saugus High. 

When disasters happen, people have a physiological reaction called a fight-or-flight survival instinct in the moment.

“The stress response is recognizable and, for some, familiar: a noticeable shift in breathing, increased heart rate, feeling sweaty and ready for some kind of action,” said Kristina de Bree, licensed marriage and family therapist. “In the face of actual threat, like a shooting, the stress response is crucial for survival.”

After the fight-or-flight instinct fades, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety can take root, which can affect many areas of a person’s life and body. When adolescents experience an event that includes mass casualties, it’s important to have many mental health and community support resources.

Anxiety can include somatic symptoms such as shaking and being easily startled. Some people also experience nightmares and survivor’s guilt.

“Survivor’s guilt stems from grief,” said Nasha Katrack, mental health therapist at Samuel Dixon Family Health Center. “People may think that they should have died or may want to die because of the sadness that follows traumatic events.”

If PTSD or survivor’s guilt is immediately acknowledged, trauma can be processed easier than if not acknowledged, or acknowledged later on in life.

De Bree suggests seven ways to cope with stress responses, which include counting backward from 100, in 7’s, 3’s or 2’s; finding the closest written words and reading them backward; listening to your favorite music; taking seven slow deep breaths, with a seven-second inhale, a seven-second hold and seven-second exhale; counting 10 things in the room; noticing five different sounds in the room; stepping away, if you are able, and take frequent breaks; and lastly, go for a walk.

Traumatic situations can result in suicides among survivors, so support from parents and teachers can help ease depression and anxiety. It’s important to reduce the stigma around mental health during these times.

Family and friends can often feel hesitant or helpless when a loved one processes trauma. Katrack said the best thing to do is to extend support to your loved one and try to refrain from giving advice. 

“Ask loved ones what they need. Use kindness, deep listening and be there for them. Help them feel held,” said Katrack, adding you should allow your loved ones to express their emotions, which can include anger, sadness or fear, and acknowledge the magnitude of the traumatic event.

Parents should watch for signs of stress and behavioral or appetite changes in children. It’s also important for parents to start the conversation about emotions and anxiety with their children and do not interrupt.

Overexposure to media can worsen PTSD symptoms, so taking breaks from the news and violent movies or TV shows can help with the healing process.

If fight-or-flight instincts take over during day-to-day situations, de Bree urges a professional consultation. 

After traumatic events happen, it’s important to focus on support and healing.

“Look out for physical symptoms of anxiety: shaking, nightmares, headaches, irritability,” said Katrack. “Try to be there for each other. If people need extra support, contact mental health professionals or a school counselor and do not isolate yourself.”

For SCV mental health resources, click here: https://bit.ly/376nPy4

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