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The Emotional Toll of School Shootings

Survivors of Violence Must Untangle Feelings to Heal From Trauma
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 15, 2008 -- The shooting at Northern Illinois University left the shooter and five students dead and 15 wounded -- and sowed emotional trauma in its wake.

There are measures we can take to maximize our safety. We can be more vigilant. We can make detailed disaster plans. But because human beings are capable of terrible violence, we can never be entirely safe.

On the other hand, it's only through our relationships with other humans that we are able to overcome the trauma inflicted on us by violent acts.

( Feeling uneasy about your kids at school in light of this school shooting? Mental Health Expert Pat Farrell, PhD, has advice to help ease your anxiety.)

Destruction of the Familiar

"What is traumatic is the sense that our world is coming apart," psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Bernhard Kempler, PhD, told WebMD the day after the 9/11 tragedy. "Something is happening that is completely impossible. The world we took for granted is gone. Then nothing can be trusted."

Classrooms are supposed to be safe places. When they become scenes of horror, students find their world turned upside down, says Susan Anderson, founder of the ArtReach Foundation that conducts healing programs for students traumatized by war, violence, or natural disaster.

"It is this break in what is familiar, the destruction of safety in a physical space that is very familiar, that causes the trauma," Anderson tells WebMD. "Trauma is a flood of simultaneous, powerful emotions that paralyze one's ability to feel."

According to the CDC, common reactions to tragedy are:

  • Feelings of loss, sadness, frustration, helplessness, or emotional numbness
  • Troubling memories
  • Nightmares or difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling nervous or on edge

Healing From Emotional Trauma

Healing occurs as we untangle the many emotions elicited by tragedy. It's hard to begin this process all by oneself. That is why people instinctively gather in the wake of disaster.

"It is important to get with people with whom you feel safe enough to express the feelings -- not thoughts, but feelings -- associated with trauma," Anderson says. "The challenge with trauma is there are so many feelings they cause a kind of short circuit in the brain. To heal, human beings must find a way to organize these feelings so they can explore one at a time."

Healing from trauma isn't something that happens in a single lightning bolt of release. It's a gradual process, not of forgetting and going back to what was normal, but of integrating one's experience and resuming life.

Anderson's group helps students do this by teaching them to express their feelings via various arts, such as painting and drama.

"Art is a vehicle for reconnecting and reorganizing the feelings during the process," she says.

Eventually, traumatized people can resume their normal existence.

"It is not that you forget. But when there is enough healing and cleansing of emotional wounds, the individual has some sense of realization they are not troubled by their everyday life any more," Anderson says.

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