As I was flipping through photos of a local air show on a Facebook community forum, I noticed a post about an active shooter in Las Vegas—at a country concert a few of my friends were attending. By now, we all know about the mass shooting that occurred during Jason Aldean’s performance at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Fifty-eight souls were taken and more than 500 people were reportedly injured. But what about the psychological trauma? Often when there is a tragedy or traumatic event, the focus of reporting is on physical injuries and deaths. However, healing the psychological trauma can take just as long, and often longer, than the physical damage. Psychological trauma can also be experienced without accompanying physical trauma, as is the case with thousands who were at the Vegas concert and escaped unharmed.
What Is Posttraumatic Stress (PTSD)?
Without getting too technical, posttraumatic stress (PTSD) can be described as a condition that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorism incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adulthood or childhood. It differs from acute stress (ASD) in that ASD symptoms occur within the first month following a trauma; a PTSD diagnosis is not given until symptoms have persisted for at least one month.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event; nightmares; flashbacks; emotional distress and physical reactivity after the traumatic event; inability to recall key features of the trauma; overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world; decreased interest in activities; feelings of isolation; irritability or aggression; hypervigilance; heightened startle reaction; and difficulty concentrating or sleeping. To be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must create distress or functional impairment (such as inability to work).
Everyone Has a Unique Healing Journey
Call it what you want, formally diagnosed or not. Healing from trauma so it doesn’t rob you of your joy, the people you love, and your life can be tricky. Just as with grief, there is no “right way” to process a trauma and heal from it. Here are some suggestions for processing and healing from a traumatic event such as the Vegas shooting:
You may not feel like the same person you were prior to this traumatic incident and that is perfectly okay. Honor what you have been through physically and psychologically.
- Don’t ignore or minimize the trauma. Ignoring or minimizing what you have experienced could lead to exacerbation of symptoms as well as a longer recovery period. It is okay to not be okay at times. Witnessing or experiencing a trauma counts as one of those times.
- Consider therapy. I’ve been told “therapy isn’t for everyone.” I disagree (yes, I know as a therapist I’m biased!). I truly believe therapy can be for everyone, in good times and bad. Meeting with a therapist can give you a safe, nonjudgmental space to process your ideas and emotions as you heal. Support groups can also be helpful. Being a part of a community that has experienced the same or similar trauma as you can be comforting as well as healing.
- Don’t get caught up in comparison of how you experienced a trauma versus others. Just as importantly, don’t get caught up in comparison about how quickly you are healing versus others. We all experience and internalize things differently, just as we all recover differently. This concept is especially important for couples. Give your partner time, space, and understanding to heal in the way they need to, which may look very different than how you are recovering. Communication is key. Don’t assume you know what your partner needs; instead, ask them how you can help support their healing.
- Survivor’s guilt can haunt a person who has been through a mass trauma like the Vegas shooting. The question “why not me?” can preoccupy a person’s thoughts, resulting in guilt. Unless you caused the tragedy or the trauma, the guilt is not yours to carry. The “why not me?” can only be answered by a higher power, and this may not be all that comforting. Be intentional and mindful about shutting the question out and focus on embracing the people and things that have meaning in your life.
- Don’t go it alone. Isolation can serve to fuel depression, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt. Your loved ones are going to want to help you through this, so let them. Just because they weren’t there and may not “get it” doesn’t mean they can’t have incredible compassion for you and be there for you. Let those who want to help you know how they can help; be clear on what you need in order to minimize frustration on everyone’s part.
For survivors and many others affected by the Las Vegas shooting, there may never be sufficient answers as to why this happened. As the daily police reports become less frequent and as the last candle is dimmed at a vigil, the quiet may become deafening. You may feel a need to “hurry up and be normal again.” This is the most crucial time to be mindful of the healing process. You may not feel like the same person you were prior to this traumatic incident and that is perfectly okay. Honor what you have been through physically and psychologically.
There are no words to describe the fear I felt from afar for my friends’ safety the night of the shooting, nor are there words to describe the gratitude I feel today that they made it out alive. This article is dedicated to them—Vanessa, Nate, Stacey, and Matt—and their unique healing journeys.
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