I was recently a guest expert on trauma for Arise News, an international news channel for New York, London, and Johannesburg. I was asked to provide tips on how the nation can recover from this recent tragedy during the Boston Marathon.
Below is an elaboration of my thoughts from this appearance.
The nature of our stress response
On a more cognitive level, our belief in the world may be challenged or shaken. I overhear people saying, "What is this world coming to?" r "We're going to hell in a hand basket!" On the most basic level, we all need to feel that the world is generally more safe than dangerous and that people are more helpful than hurtful. Without this assumption, our capacity to love and grow becomes significantly hampered, and we become more vulnerable to mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even anger. Any traumatic event challenges these fundamental assumptions we need to make about the world. It is our job to remember that the world is generally a safe place, particularly for those of us fortunate enough to live in these great United States. Like I said on the news program, this tragedy was but one moment in our lives. We are supposed to respond with horror and grief. But, when that moment passes, we have to allow it to pass and realize that there have been and will be millions of moments when nothing bad happens and in fact "pockets of beauty" quoting Nietzsche emerge.
Right now, we are all mostly responding like we should. We are all a little more hyper-vigilant, ore alert, more jittery and tense. Our sleep may be disrupted and we may feel less hungry or queasy. This is our body's natural way of keeping us protected from perceived threat. We need to thank our bodies for keeping us alert for danger, but when the danger has passed, we need to help our body expend that energy (through physical exercise, crying, relaxation practices, etc) and remind our bodies that we are safe again.
A word of caution: be careful of "othering"
One other thing that our stress response does when it is on high alert, is that it looks to identify the source of threat. It needs to find the enemy. Simultaneously, this state of alarm narrows our thinking, making us think in simplified, black-and-white erms. In another parallel process, we feel horrified by exposure to evil and want to move ourselves as far away from that as possible. We all hold within us a mix of good and evil parts. But, when something extremely evil happens, we want to simplify the world, distance ourselves from such evil, and compensate by thinking of ourselves as more good. This is what I think of when I hear interviews of people who knew this young men and can't make sense of these evil acts and the good kids they used to know.
These processes leaves us highly vulnerable for wanting to find a singular source of danger and label that danger as purely evil. In this moment, particularly when commingled with grief, which leaves us wanting retaliation as a safer, less vulnerable and helpless, state of being, we are at great risk of planting seeds of hatred, discrimination, racism, and oppression. We want to say that all Chechen or all Muslims are bad people because it makes us feel safer to just assume so and leave it at that or know who to blame and hurt for what has happened.
The key to protecting ourselves from such an outcome is to stand naked in our inability to comprehend how such evil acts exists, allow these events to wash through us in waves of fear, anger, despair, and grief, then allow them to pass, realizing that the moment is temporary and soon enough new moments will arise free from this one.