Response to Mass Violence

The increasing number of shootings in schools and public places has been met with responses along a continuum spanning wordless terror to calls for action. Here therapists can pause to reflect on the utility of fear. We cannot survive without it; it is a guide for effective action insomuch as it mobilizes us to avoid or prevail over danger.  But left to its own devices fear can rob us of language, a sense of time, linear thought, and the capacity to keep events right-sized. Too much fear causes compelling impulses that as often as not only worsen a situation. In the West we say, “Don’t sit there, do something!” In the East it is said, “Don’t do anything, just sit there.“ We are faced with finding a balance between the two extremes.

More than ever, therapists are having conversations with clients about feeling afraid, confused, angry, and helpless about current events. For this reason, it is critical that we take stock of our own responses, not only by carefully examining the emotional atmosphere within ourselves, but also in our homes, schools and communities.  Fear is contagious, and so is equanimity. Thus, we have an opportunity to make an important difference each day. By remaining calm and connected, we evoke the same response in others. It serves no purpose to deny the harsh reality of the mass violence that we have seen in recent years.  Likewise, we cannot give our limbic system and brain stem autonomy over how we react.

In addition to monitoring our own internal climate and engaging in activities that modulate our perspective, we can help by reminding ourselves and our clients about the effects of the media. Growing research shows that tertiary exposure, in sufficient doses, can be as toxic as first- or second-hand exposure to trauma. Listening to or watching repeated accounts of murders and other catastrophic events stimulates the pituitary gland —among other endocrine processes– to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, this can cause an habitual stress response, which in turn shapes the way we interpret subsequent experiences. In short, we need to inoculate ourselves from stress that can reasonably be avoided. Clients are served well by having direct conversations about the risks of vicarious trauma and how to avoid it.

Sadly, shootings, explosions, and calamitous accidents are the new normal. We hope that things will change and have reason to think that they might. This week thousands of youths across the country and parts of the globe took decisive action to express their pain and frustration, and to put forth ideas about what is needed to make their world better. Their response is an antidote to the helplessness inspired by terror. History is replete with stories of people who survived atrocities by banding with others to act purposefully. Resilience is highly correlated with social connection. , ”an active and alert temperament”, strong communication and conflict resolution skills, and active coping mechanisms (Herman, 1991, p. 58).  Resilient people are creative; they rise together and use people, ideas, past and contemporary wisdom, and other ingenious tools to mitigate adverse circumstances. Therapists, helping professionals, and lay people alike all are called upon at this time to provide strength and guidance and, above all, to remain resilient and optimistic. Without an expectation of growth and healing, the picture remains bleak and one is tempted to become isolated and apathetic, which helps no one. The alternative is to forge ahead, offering hope and confidence that we will learn our way through this one step at a time.