December 10, 2007

Witnessing violence in person or on TV, like the shooting that occurred this week at an Omaha shopping center, can wreak havoc with our bodies. Typical initial reactions are feelings of not really being here, feeling disbelief, floating or spacey or detached. These are feelings of shock. It’s very important to actively work our way out of shocking incidents, even if we only saw it on television; otherwise, it can cause us trouble later. Post traumatic stress syndrome, suffered by so many Vietnam and Iraqi vets and by so many after 9/11, is the medical term for what can happen when we store trauma in our bodies.

I would worry about post traumatic stress symptoms for anyone exposed to this kind of trauma. They can show up weeks, even months, after we’ve been exposed to violence. Be on the lookout if you develop phobias or insomnia or digestive disorders or substance abuse. These are all indications that we haven’t yet successfully processed the violence out of our bodies.

It’s really important that we address trauma as soon as possible. Witnessing violence, whether in person or on television, can cause anxiety, phobias, sleeplessness, and even a sense of not really “being here.” It can negatively affect immune function and bone health, and is a causative factor in rectal and colon cancer.

In order to counteract the negative effects of such an event, of primary importance is to simply talk about what happened and how it makes you feel. In addition, the simple practice of coming into the present can help the parasympathetic nervous system take over to manage anxiety and help us cope.

Then go out and spend some time in nature. Watch the sunrise. Listen to the birds. Sit on the grass and smell the scent of terra firma beneath you. This is not denial or avoidance; this is re-grounding. Take a few deep breaths and connect to your feet, then work up to your calves and your knees, then up to your stomach, chest, throat, and finally the top of your head. Acknowledge the feelings in your body and, when you are ready, say to yourself: I want to be here now.

All of us face tragedy at times in our lives. When a tragedy of this magnitude occurs, a shock wave travels throughout the collective mind: it can happen anywhere at anytime. Our shared helplessness at that exposure can draw us together. Talk about what it means to go on, console each other. Compassion and care will, over time, allow the rest of us to go on.