I clicked on the New York Times website, planning to make some minor changes in my account there. I saw a video link front and center on the page, arrow ready to click, and was compelled to watch it. What followed was raw, first-hand video footage of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, complete with screams, repeated loud gunfire and a palpable sense of terror that was hard to miss, even via this medium. I watched the opening frames and then had to stop. I could not bear to watch even thirty more seconds of such terrifyingly intimate trauma. I was not there, but in those few seconds I felt an almost uncanny connection to those who were at the center of the tragedy.
You might remember that I wrote a column entitled Emotional Trauma in September last year discussing some of these issues. I felt that the subject needed further attention in light of yet another school shooting and the aftermath of such a horrible event.
Parkland, Florida. Fourteen students and three teachers killed. A dozen more injured. The worst school shooting since Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, where twenty children and six teachers died.
There have been two hundred and ninety school shootings since early 2013. The data can be viewed from multiple perspectives, including mass killings, accidental discharge of firearms, after hours fights in parking lots and suicides, but that is not the reason for my revisiting this subject today. No matter how the data for these terrible events are tabulated and categorized, there is a common thread for the public, the rest of us.
We can see the shooting, hear the screams, and experience the terror almost in real time thanks to the ubiquity of portable audio and video devices that make everyone a potential journalist. Even if we are hundreds or thousands of miles away from the event, we can be traumatized repeatedly by viewing and hearing these accounts over and over again. Why are we more exposed to these incidents now than in the past?
Everyone has a cell phone, and many of them are ready to shoot still photographs, video, record audio and stream real time video. We are so used to seeing these devices that they are almost invisible to us. We are also hyperconnected to our friends, families and the world like never before through social media and other outlets. Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, SnapChat, and YouTube keep us messaging, talking, chatting and sharing twenty-four hours a day. There are obvious upsides to this, but one of the downsides is the possibility of live-streaming traumatic events.
While it is true that traditional news media outlets have always brought us graphic images and related content, they were often relegated to specific time slots or print, and one could choose to tune in or pick up the content to watch or read it. Now, exposure can be ongoing and repeated via outlets as diverse as newspapers, phones, television, laptops or other internet providers. Social media also offers unfiltered violent stories and graphic images, without the opportunity to edit content and soften the emotional trauma that results. The web has virtually unlimited reach and scope, with countless sources and a never ending supply of materials to sift through. We have all had the experience of looking for something specific on the internet, only to find ourselves going down the rabbit hole with no shutoff valve for the firehose of information that presents itself to us.
One 2013 study after the Boston Marathon bombing showed that those who were exposed to at least six hours of media coverage of the bombing reported higher levels of acute stress than those with direct exposure to the event itself. Some think that this might be because an acute event is experienced, dealt with and eventually ends, whereas repeated media exposure to the trauma keeps it in mind and much more present in ongoing thoughts.
What symptoms might present as a result of repeated exposure to traumatic events, even in second hand ways? One might become hyper-vigilant to their surroundings, scanning for danger. Feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness, or guilt may come up, followed by avoidance of certain people, places or circumstances. Social withdrawal may manifest, just at the time that connections are most needed. Sleep and appetite may suffer. We may become not more, but less sensitive to violent acts, with an attitude of “oh, another one” when confronted with the news of a dramatic event such as a shooting. We may become afraid, have a decreased sense of safety and forget to take good care of ourselves.
How should we cope with this new world, when news seems to be increasingly bad, violent acts are frequent and our exposure to trauma is so commonplace?
First, we should realize that there is no right way to deal with stress, trauma and emotional distress. People cope with trauma, loss and grief in many different ways, though there are patterns and similarities. Find someone and talk if you need to; listen if that works better for you. Realize that disasters, be they natural or man made, are often huge in scope materially, physically, financially and emotionally. We, in contrast, are small, and sometimes feel even more so when traumatized. Set realistic expectations for your response to the acute event, and to the pace at which you expect to recover. Deeper hurts often take much longer to heal than we expect them to, and willing ourselves to get past them quicker is not always the best course of action.
Social connections are important, especially in times of tragedy. Stay connected with family, friends and coworkers. If separated by physical or emotional distance, make an effort to reconnect. Remember that time heals. It is not often apparent in the days immediately following a traumatic event, but it is very often true. Focus on getting back to your routine, paying attention to those day to day tasks and activities that ground you. Schedule yourself back to normal. Make time for the mundane, as it gives your life structure and makes its fabric richer over time.
Disconnect from the trauma and its aftermath on social media, the internet and other outlets. Do not let yourself disconnect from information that will help you heal, but don’t subject yourself to repeated traumatization. Schedule positive activities. Manage your emotions by writing, journaling, listening to music, getting out into nature, spending time with those who accept you for who you are and allow you to express yourself in whatever way is healing for you.
Honor losses when they come, as they do for us all, but focus on your future, the positive people, places, and things that you truly care about that will carry you forward into the rest of your life.
This piece was first published in the Aiken (SC) Standard on February 26, 2018.