Remember the moment you heard about the shootings on the Virginia Tech campus? How you heard of it and where you were? Your reaction? The reactions of your friends and those around you?
Reactions to traumatic events are as varied as people are. Your response may be very different from your roommate’s or your mother’s. We’ll discuss what is normal and what is not, what to do now and when to get help.
Traumatic stress reactions can be loosely divided into physical and emotional, short term and long term. Many people initially feel shock and disbelief, even denial. Also common are anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, compassion, helplessness, and survivor’s guilt. You may feel emotionally numb, or conversely find that you are irritable and jumpy. Your moods may change back and forth quickly. You may struggle in your mind with why this happened, trying to find answers, to make sense of the tragedy. You may worry about something similar happening here. You may have physical responses, like nausea, headache, jitters, chest pain, trouble breathing, difficulty sleeping, or decreased appetite. All of these are normal. However, if you have severe emotional or physical symptoms in these first days, please get professional help.
This is already a stressful time on campus, with finals and graduations just around the corner. A background of existing stress can magnify the effect of a major tragic news event. If you have some kind of connection to Virginia Tech, your reactions may be even stronger. For example, if you knew one of the victims, or know a student at VT, or have friends or relatives or experience in the area, your feelings will probably be more intense.
If you have a history of previous trauma, as many of us do, the news of this tragedy might bring that past trauma to the front of your mind, and you might find yourself thinking, dreaming, reliving or having feelings about the other incident. The previous incident may seem totally unrelated, or it may be a similar event. This can be unsettling at best. The severe form of this kind of reaction is called PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but most cases are milder, a temporary resurfacing of memories which fade into the background again.
How can you cope with your own feelings and thoughts during this time? Connect with those you care about. Spend time with friends. Call your family. Talk about your feelings and reactions, or write about them. Post your condolences online, along with thousands of others. Above all take good, healthy care of yourself. Eat well, get as much rest as you can, exercise. Avoid the temptation to “drown your sorrows” with alcohol or drugs. Again, if you’re having severe reactions, get help.
While initial reactions to trauma may vary in kind and severity, most people return fairly soon to a competent pursuit of their normal activities. You don’t forget, but you aren’t immobilized either. An abnormal response is when you are affected to an extreme, or when your feelings or thoughts persist after the initial shock period. Next week and beyond, if you find yourself unable to concentrate or sleep well, or if you are having trouble performing your usual activities due to continuing trauma responses, please seek help.
Delayed responses to trauma can happen up to weeks and months after the initial event. Keep this in mind as you observe and care for your own mental health in the near future.