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: Coping in the Face of Deadly Violence: The Vegas Shooting

The Vegas Shooting that took the lives of 59 people and wounded 527 others is the deadliest shooting incident in modern American history. It is a tragic and violent event.

As we shockingly take stock of this horrific event, we once again dare to imagine the pain of the families, the suffering of those wounded and the echoes of fear and horror triggered in so many who have faced violence and tragedy. In the face of such violent loss and injury we are left without words, helpless to understand ‘Why’ and needing to believe there is a way to prevent such events. How Do We Cope?

Psychological First Aid

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 when life has suddenly become so terrifying.

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.
  • Continual witnessing of a horrific event on social media or in the news can be frightening and dysregulating.
  • Events that are discrepant with our usual expectations are disturbing for adults and children. For most people, music concerts and trips to Vegas bring associations of fun, wonderful times and treasured memories. As such, the impact of this shooting needs to be moderated. Explanations of what has happened need to be made in age appropriate ways to teens and children.
  • Overall it is crucial to balance “ the need to know” 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.

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.

It is often helpful for friends and family to have the opportunity to share their feelings about the events, their associations and their fears. Finding out that you are not alone with the emotional impact of a violent and lethal shooting – is helpful.

When a tragic event has harmed or taken those close to us, we often don’t even have words. There are no words. We can’t think and sometimes can’t feel. What we have learned is that the compassionate presence of those we love and those with whom we are most comfortable, help buffer the anguish and suffering of such 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; Intrusion or Re-experiencing; Negative Thoughts and Feelings; and Numbing and Avoidance. Not everyone experiences these responses and they rarely last more than a few weeks. When they persist, getting professional support can be very helpful.

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.

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 of physical and emotional stress reduction 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 the traumatic event. They have 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.

Negative Thoughts and Feelings: It is common that the direct experience, witnessing or learning of a violent event will trigger negative thoughts about the world, excessive blame of self or blame of others. It is important to know that such feelings are part of the fight/flight reaction to an unspeakable event.

Strategies to Deal with them Include

  • Cognitively accept and reframe these thoughts or feelings as symptoms of traumatic exposure. They will shift as time passes and as you take opportunities to lower your stress level.
  • Many people find that being with people they love and care about reduces these feelings – be it playing with your children or feeling grateful for dinner with a loved one.
  • Taking on an achievable goal – particularly one that benefits someone else reduces the feelings of helplessness and is an antidote to anger and self-blame. Generosity to others lowers the fight/flight reactivity.
  • Gratitude for what is precious and awe inspiring in this world like the wonders of nature or the way that people step up to help each other fosters loving kindness and a calming perspective.

 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. For some teens, children and adults it may be a necessary first survival strategy.

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, if it persists, is that it leaves a person alone with the trauma. It does not allow for sharing, diluting, normalizing or integrating the 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 passions and 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.

Be it physical strength, intelligence, social skills, love of nature, sense of humor, creativity, playing music, mindfulness, spirituality, generosity and the wish to help –these strengths are the best of you.

 Violent events as the shooting in Vegas take life and threaten our freedom to live safely, enjoy music, travel, and have wonderful times in the company of others.

 As individuals, families, communities and cultures, we must now go forward to bear witness, mourn, bond, pray… and find the music again.