What to Do When Your World Now Feels Scary
Coping Steps in the Aftermath of a Terror Attack
After terror, then back to work and school.
Following last week’s terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which saw 50 people killed and many others physically and emotionally wounded, reclaiming normality is a big ask.
Terrorism, previously unknown in New Zealand, has suddenly become the go-to topic around water-coolers in workplaces and schools. While talking can be helpful for some, it can also be source of — and trigger for — anxiety for others. So it’s important to think about your own needs and to respect those of the people around you.
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD refers to the emotional and physical reactions in people who have witnessed or experienced an event which has threatened their life, safety or wellbeing. The mass shooting in Christchurch — one of the worst in recent history — is an obvious example but others include accidents, assaults, abuse, natural disasters, living in war zones, death of a loved one — anything that dramatically alters your life course or view.
People exposed to such events may experience emotions such as shock, sadness, fear and anger. They may have sleep and concentration problems, mood swings and want to avoid places and things that remind them of the event or seem scary. Those who’ve been directly exposed may experience flashbacks and other disturbing thoughts alongside their grief or anguish. All of these symptoms are normal and may take time to subside. Later, anxieties, depression and addictions are possible.
Emotional recovery depends heavily on three things: (1) a person’s innate resilience; that is, their ability to adapt to life as it is now (2) the support of the people and environment/s they return to and (3) the tools they have and use to help them cope. While some will recover quickly, others need time and support and, possibly, professional help.
But the first step for all of us is to re-establish a firm footing in the world, a sense of normality. Here are some tips for early coping:
1. Recognise heightened emotions are normal.
You, and those around you may be more emotional than usual. That’s okay — you’re allowed to express pain, have feelings and show vulnerability. However if you have children or young people in your care, be mindful of your role in modelling coping strategies and helping them feel stable and secure.
2. Talk about it (a bit).
Talk things through if you want to but don’t be forced. Speak up or remove yourself if you need a break from these discussions. Think about others too: while your coping strategy may be to talk a lot and unpack things, it may be traumatising for the person at the next desk. Be sensitive to the responses (and needs) of those around you. If in doubt, ask them.
3. Get back to basics.
Look after yourself, especially the basics — healthy food, physical activity and sleep. Lock in routines around work and school, exercise, other activities, wherever and as soon possible: structure is especially helpful when you’re feeling anxious and/or uncertain. Don’t force it though, if you need a little more time to process things, that’s okay too.
4. Limit your exposure to news feeds and social media.
While you might want to catch up with what’s going on, keep a lid on your exposure. Over-exposure to sadness and difficulty is not healthy or good for your mental state. If you have children or young people in your care, keep an eye on how much they are taking in — and put boundaries around it if necessary.
6. Stay connected.
Especially with your own people, because that’s your best form of support. But reach out too. Think about the language you use: express love and compassion, over negativity and hate.
7. Pitch in.
Help out where you can or where you see others struggling. If you can do something helpful, do it — even if it’s just to listen, make a cuppa or offer a hug. As well as contributing to others’ welfare, it will also boost your own mental state.
8. Take perspective.
When an event seems all encompassing, it’s easy to lose yourself in it. A right-wing extremist gunman and a terror attack do not define a country; there are also many good things happening around you. Allow yourself to absorb those too.
9. As you think, so are you.
Spiritual beliefs can be helpful in taking you beyond the experience. Many of those killed, and affected by this tragedy, come from strong positions of faith. Whether you hold these beliefs or not, it is important to tap into your own beliefs or spirituality, or at least to think beyond yourself: it can help reground you, reset your thinking, promote gratitude and aid perspective taking.
It’s not necessary to aim for full recovery from PTSD, nor to wipe out fear because we all can, and must, learn to live alongside our emotional struggles. But the best goal, for now, is to take one step at a time.