Experts: Serial trauma can take a serious toll
First a storm demolished homes, stole lives and broke spirits. Then a massacre of 20 children and six educators stunned the nation. Next a blizzard left cars, homes and entire lives snowbound. Now a horrific bombing at an iconic sporting event has left three dead and many more injured.
Ever since Superstorm Sandy struck in October, it seems this region has been caught in a chain-reaction of tragedies both natural and manmade. The latest, the Monday bombing at the Boston Marathon, affected many of the Connecticut residents who participated.
Even for those not directly affected by any of these events, just watching so many catastrophes in the span of a few months takes a toll on the psyche, according to area mental health experts.
"I think having these numerous poundings or significant tragedies in succession can really undermine people's foundation," said Dr. Sheila Cooperman, vice chairwoman of psychiatry at St. Vincent's Behavioral Health in Westport. "These are events that are out of people's control."
The effects of serial trauma might be subtle enough that we don't even realize we're feeling them, said Sara Victor, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Westport.
"People might be wandering around feeling a little bit angry and a little bit sad and a little bit anxious, and they don't even know why," she said.
Those who didn't lose property in Superstorm Sandy or a loved one during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting might not connect their feelings to those events, Victor said. But even those who experienced a lesser impact can feel overwhelmed when so many adverse events happen fairly close together, she said.
The constant news coverage of most of these events get often adds to people's stress, said Sherry Perlstein, president and chief executive officer of the Child Guidance Center Southern Connecticut, an outpatient mental center for children and adolescents with offices in Stamford, Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan.
"One of the problems of the 24-hour news cycle is that they keep us at this heightened state of anxiety," Perlstein said. "The best advice is, don't keep watching the coverage. If you keep feeding your appetite for details, you're going to pay the price."
That's especially true if there is something in the coverage with which the viewer has a visceral connection.
Dr. Ryan O'Connell, of North Haven, was one of the hundreds of Connecticut residents who ran in the Boston Marathon. His family, including his 8- and 10-year-old children, went with him. O'Connell, vice president of performance and risk management at Bridgeport Hospital, finished the race long before the explosions and didn't hear about the bombing until he and his family were well out of harm's way.
Still, he said, the news was traumatic, particularly for his children. When the family heard on the news that one of those killed was an 8-year-old boy, O'Connell realized just how traumatic.
"My 8-year-old said `Oh, that's a lot like me,' " O'Connell said. "It wasn't an easy night. They were very solemn, processing it in their own way."
The weight of these tragedies can feel overwhelming, but experts said there are ways to avoid getting swallowed by feelings of sadness and anxiety. One is simply to talk about your feelings, be it to a trusted friend, family member, clergy or a professional therapist. A therapist can be particularly helpful in getting you to view your circumstances in a different way, Victor said. For instance, she said, you can see a forecast of inclement weather as a sign of certain doom, and panic about losing power or property. Or you can calmly stock up on food and emergency supplies and view the latest storm as opportunity to spend more quality time with your loved ones.
"Neither way of thinking is going to change the event itself, but it changes your response to the event," Victor said.
Another way to put adverse events into perspective is by offering help to those directly affected by the tragedy. There's a reason people set up scholarship funds or give blood after events like Sandy Hook or the Boston bombings, said Melissa Whitson, assistant professor of community psychology at the University of New Haven.
"It helps people cope with the tragedy in their own way," she said. "By helping others, they're taking something negative and turning into something positive."
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