How to deal with secondary trauma after the Monterey Park mass shooting

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Violence consumes your thoughts. The social media apps you use to distract yourself from reality are flooded with accounts and updates about mass shootings.

You may even begin to feel fear, anger, or discouragement as physical sensations.

“Symptoms are your body’s way of telling you there’s a problem,” clinical psychologist Amanda Seon-Walker said last year.

As we read and watch the news following mass shootings – in Buffalo, Laguna Woods and Uvalde last year; and now Monterey Park in 2023 – we may experience what experts call a secondary and collective trauma.

Last year, we interviewed four psychologists about personal and collective trauma, how it affects us, and what we can do to process and overcome it in healthy ways. Here are their answers.

Q. What should people understand about secondary trauma or collective trauma? Who might it affect?

Manuel Zamarripa, Clinical Psychologist and President of the National Latinx Psychological Association, and Oscar Fernando Rojas Perez, Clinical Psychologist and NLPA Policy Advisor: People need to understand that collective trauma is a psychological reaction/response to a traumatic/horrific event; for example, the Uvalde and Buffalo stories experienced and shared by a group of people. And [it] can affect the whole society. … It is normal for people to feel helpless and have strong emotions. Collective trauma differs from individual trauma in that collective memory persists throughout the life of the immediate survivor and is recalled by group members who may be distant in time and space from the traumatic event. .

It is important to note that survivors remember a traumatic event differently than those who witnessed the actual event, and that constructions of events can take different shapes and forms from individual to individual. ‘other. In addition, this secondary trauma may be particularly impactful if there is shared membership in a community or community that is important to one’s identity.

Anjuli Amin is a clinical psychologist and president of the Asian American Psychological Association. : We often see this process of secondary trauma (vicarious trauma) in first responders, medical professionals, and those who are constantly traumatized. Studies show that exposure to traumatic events through the media can lead viewers to experience anxiety, coping difficulties, feelings of helplessness, and overwhelming fear. In a way, it can affect us all, especially given how difficult it can be to escape the constant news cycle.

Sean Walker: A common injury is when it limits your ability to deal with something, your coping skills. With secondary trauma, many people don’t realize that what is attacking them in the media is attacking their ability to cope. So sometimes people need to be aware of what is happening to them and what is happening to their bodies in response to what they consume.

This, of course, affects people with stressful life situations. I would say that people who are prone to stress should really be aware of this, because it can be something that takes people out of their coping mechanisms. Other people, it can really affect [are] people who believe that the world is safe. When [mass shootings happen] “What does my world look like?” because of the question, it really destroys a person’s worldview. “Is my world really safe?” “Where am I safe? »

Q. How does it add another layer of trauma when the victims of a mass shooting are from your community, race, or culture?

Amen: When we have personal contact with an event, such as a mass shooting, it can activate our fight-or-flight response, causing us to feel anxious, hypervigilant, and fearful. We can react to the environment as if we were in survival mode. It can also trigger our personal trauma experience, which adds to our response in the present and also takes us back to the past, where we begin to feel emotional distress in response to those memories.

It can also reinforce certain beliefs or worldviews based on our life experiences. For example, if I believe the world is a dangerous place, witnessing something like a mass shooting can reinforce this.

Zamarripa and Rojas Perez: When victims of mass shootings are members of a racial and/or ethnic community, people in that community experience a sense of safety in their daily lives—at work, at home, and in the community. It can also remind you of past and present experiences of aggression, violence, violations and “isms” experienced by others. People may experience a decline in their mental health in the coming months. Also, people of this community experience discrimination and humiliation from the media. As a result, people from racial and ethnic communities are vulnerable to experiences of racial and ethnic trauma.

S. How can people consciously perceive information about recent mass shootings?

Amen: My #1 recommendation is to take a break from the news and media. We were not created to absorb a constant stream of stress and anxiety; our bodies and minds cannot handle it. We need to find time to disconnect and [do so] on a consistent basis. I always encourage people to start small – can you turn off screens, alerts, notifications for two minutes today? If you can do two minutes today, can we work up to five minutes next week? Being consistent with this helps us develop a habit and make something a lifelong experience.

It’s important to be confident in processing the emotions and thoughts you’ve been holding onto. Journaling, talking about it, moving are all ways to help our bodies absorb stress and prevent the build-up of emotions.

Then, once we have processed our emotions, we can easily move into the space of action. I recommend that people connect with what they have access to. We can’t solve the biggest problems in the world, but we can do things that align us with our values ​​and connect us to who we want to be. It’s important to start small here, especially when we feel what’s going on. Checking in with a neighbor, buying a colleague coffee, holding the door open for someone. These are things we can easily discount, but have the potential to go a long way in tough times.

Sean Walker: One of them is if you have intrusive symptoms, remember what happened, have nightmares, have trouble sleeping, if you feel active, if you feel itchy in your body, or if you have panic attacks or heart palpitations, be aware of any symptoms. you have to deal with that kind of excitement. It is important to seek therapeutic help for such symptoms, to find a space for real support. And it could be a mental health provider, it could be your spiritual provider, it could be a support group.

Zamaripa: Some of us could not go to work tomorrow. Sometimes we say, “Don’t let this happen. We have to move forward. It has a time and a place. But at the same time, these losses are so devastating. … If we’re incredibly stressed, we don’t want to go to work, those are the right feelings. We don’t always need to understand them. This is how grief and trauma work.

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