Notes From Tucson

This article was originally published on The Meadows’ Addiction Treatment Blog.

It was a sad day in Tucson, Arizona, as a lone gunman made a foiled assassination attempt on the state’s Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords while she was conducting a meet and greet at a local supermarket. On that Saturday, January 8th Tucsonans and the greater nation became aware of the tragedy as the day unfolded. As the events became known we learned that 19 people were shot and six people were left dead.

The lingering question for most people is, “Why—why did this happen?” That answer or a variation of the truth may remain unsolved. However, the answer, with or without the facts is that an unstable mind coupled with aggression can be, and in this case was, a dangerous coefficient.

The fallout from this devastation will linger, certainly for the lives of those affected. On a broader scale, however, the damage remains with the potential for secondary trauma as we look on from the sidelines and are left to ponder our own lives and human fragility.

In the days since this tragic event I have noticed a strong need for people to share their thoughts and feelings on the topic. Regardless of their political or personal persuasion, one thing is clear to me. As communities lay witness to these events both within our own backyards and around the nation’s landscape, I see signs of psychological distress due to the increasing frequency of senseless violence against others and our loved ones.

In the helping profession we know this to be vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma (or secondary trauma) is a trauma response that results from the cumulative effect of contact with and exposure to survivors of violence or disaster. This can occur over a period of time with delay after days, months or years of direct or indirect contact. Those of us who work with and treat psychological trauma know that we are vulnerable to this condition and therefore, take steps toward increasing self care on a regular basis.

So it comes as no surprise to me that as our society is increasingly exposed to acts of violence certain individuals who already struggle with their own internal distress, inch that much closer to an inability to cope. Still, for others who are on the cusp of emotional fragility, their ability to stay functional might become greatly compromised as a result of an event or a series of events such as this and move toward an emotional unraveling.

One’s ability to handle a traumatic experience(s) is not formulaic. Further, no two individuals will respond nor manage the distress in quite the same way. For some, violent acts such as this, will elicit a healthy call-to-action in the service of political or social change. For others these events might induce an emotional decompensation rendering them emotionally unable to function as before.

In the aftermath of a crisis or crises, an already fragile emotional structure is likely to become more vulnerable to the duress and re-experience an old, but, unresolved traumatic response. As the unresolved and underlying trauma is triggered, the response in the here and now can be physiological, psychological or emotional in nature. A few of those moderate signs and symptoms include: sadness, anxiety, social withdrawal, increased signs of depression, loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, and anxiety to name a few.

Just how an individual copes is based on several factors; their internal strengths, available family/social support, and/or learned coping skills. Those individuals who have worked through their grief and loss due to trauma will have an easier time moving forward past an event. That event becomes a momentary pause versus a roadblock beyond which one is unable to move. When an individual continues to struggle with unresolved trauma they could have a strong identification with current crisis such as the shooting event in Tucson. Others’ grief and loss becomes the catalyst for a re-experiencing of one’s old trauma wounding.

For those that are struggling with this event or others that are traumatic I encourage self care in the following ways:

  • Seek support from your identified support system whether that be family or friends.
  • Attend 12-step groups to ensure ongoing sobriety for those in recovery.
  • Make mindful connections to the positive influences in your world.
  • Remember your personal connection with others and the love and support that your presence in their life brings.
  • Be of service to individuals who are in need. Giving of one self helps ensure an empathic connection in a time of need, both to your self and to others.

Last, it is always important to remember that reaching out for professional help when or if it is needed is an act of courage and strength. It takes a strong person to reach out for help and present oneself the gift of compassion, love and support.