Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Denver Movie Shooting: A Dark Catastrophe

movie tragedyThe definition of catastrophe is an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering. The early morning shooting and killing of 12 people and wounding of others as they eagerly began viewing the latest Batman movie; “The Dark Knight Rises,” tragically qualifies.

As we shockingly take stock of this horrific event, we once again dare to imagine the pain of the families or resonate with memories of having faced similar pain. In the face of traumatic loss we are left without words, helpless to understand ‘Why’ and needing to believe there is a way to prevent such events.

We have come to know that even as we can still barely catch a breath and struggle for answers, there are some initial steps of Psychological First Aid (PFA) that offer some relief.

Here are some suggestions worth knowing and owning when life has suddenly become so darkened.

Establishing Safety-Monitoring Media

  • One of the most important sources of safety in the aftermath of catastrophe is the invaluable updating and communication of information through media sources. It can also be a source of heightened anxiety and re-traumatization.
  • This tragic shooting took place at the opening of a long awaited film by millions who love the movies and love superheroes. It takes place when viewers throughout the country were enjoying the film much as the victims of this tragedy intended to do. This means that many people, young and old alike, can identify with those killed and injured, as well as with their grieving families. This can be upsetting and alarming.
  • It becomes crucial to balance “knowing” with shutting down your own and the family’s media sources so that adults, young people and children are not assaulted by a 24/7 exposure to this tragic event.
  • For young children for whom a dark movie theater is a relatively new event and superheroes should emerge as wonderful characters of childhood, listening, making meaning, answering questions and clarifying this as a distinct event becomes crucial. We never want a child to be afraid of going to a movie.

Networks of Support

When a traumatic event has occurred, an invaluable source of physical and psychological safety is connection with familiar networks of support. People feel comfort, empathy and validation in community – be it family, friends, school, church or online communities.

In the face of a horrific event we often don’t have words but the compassionate presence of those we love and those with whom we are most comfortable lightens unspeakable loss.

Making Meaning of Common Responses to Trauma

It helps many to understand that there are common stress responses to experiencing and witnessing trauma and traumatic loss. These include symptoms of Hyperarousal – The Persistent Expectation of Danger; Intrusion or Re-experiencing; Numbing and Avoidance.

Hyperarousal or the Persistent Expectation of Danger

Hyperarousal is reflected in an inability to relax, exaggerated startle response, inability to sleep or concentrate and irritability.  It is as if your mind and body does not yet know you are safe.  Not everyone experiences this and such responses rarely last more than a few weeks. When they persist, getting professional support can be very helpful.

Strategies to address hyperarousal include:

  • Self Care of your basic needs – Are you sleeping, eating and do you have a way to relax?
  • All of your basic needs are helped if you make use physical and emotional opportunities to exercise, play music, cook, read the paper, pray or do something that calms you – this is the time to use your relaxation strategies. In the disorganized state of trauma, people often forget the value of re-setting and using their own routines.
  • Be very careful about the use of alcohol and drugs. People often see them as quick ways to relax, but they actually add to the physical and emotional disorganization experienced after trauma.

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.  If you find yourself jolted by a picture in the paper or have a nightmare, consider that such reactions are the mind and body’s way of assimilating an incomprehensible event into your life experience.

Strategies to deal with them include:

  • Re-frame them as understandable sequels to an event outside your life experience.
  • Share them, write about them, express them in music, art or some medium – move them from frightening fragments to something for which you have more mastery.
  • Use positive re-focusing — once you have identified them as unassimilated glimpses and traumatic memories, turn your mind and body to something that feels transformative. People find nature, pets, sports, music, prayer and helping others to be effective.

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, it 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:

  • Reaching  for and accepting the offer of someone who knows what you have faced and can be a compassionate presence – a friend, a partner, a family member, a professional, a spiritual caregiver.
  •  Just being with someone who cares regardless of whether you are walking, cooking, shooting hoops or listening to music takes you away from the trauma and allows you to dare to feel again – a crucial start.

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.

  • Individual resilience traits include physical strength, intelligence, interpersonal strengths, independence, sense of humor, creativity and spirituality.
  • Resilience also means knowing when too much time has passed (usually after a month) and you are still suffering in the aftermath of trauma and traumatic loss.
  • Resilience means realizing it is time to reach for professional help.

Catastrophes such as the Denver movie shooting darken our world as they take life and assault the freedom to enjoy a movie, to live with a sense of safety.

As individuals, families, communities and cultures, we go forward together needing to bear witness, mourn, bond, pray and play. Together we have strength and hope.

Depressed woman photo available from Shutterstock