By Claire Lampen
February 26, 2018
On Tuesday, nearly a week to the day after a gunman opened fire on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Washington Post published an article looking at a group of teens readjusting to life in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event.
One 18-year-old named Hannah told the Post her body constricts at loud noises. Another girl feels like she can’t be alone. A boy finds himself unable to sleep, for fear of recurring nightmares featuring the shooter, a former student. Another boy is back to sleeping in his mother’s bed.
The Post met them gathered at Hannah’s house — to talk; to avoid looking at their phones, where the images on social media risk retraumatizing them all over again, and random adults accuse them of fabricating their experiences; to recount individual memories of a shared experience; to vent; to distract one another; to avoid being alone; to do something other than, as Post writer Jessica Contrera put it, “[stare] blankly at the wall.”
Parkland students have received attention and deserved praise for their uncanny ability to swing into action after the shooter slipped onto the Marjory Stoneman Douglas campus with an AR-15 assault rifle and killed 17 teachers and students. On social media, survivors recalled hiding in closets to wait out the shooting. Now, they’re demanding action from politicians on behalf of the approximately 150,000 students who have endured similar attacks at their schools since the Columbine shooting in 1999. And amid the activism, the organizing, the speeches, the marches, they’ve had to figure out how to cope with a range of foreign feelings. They are, as Vilma Torres, director of staff at Safe Horizon’s Bronx Family Justice Center, tells Teen Vogue, parsing out the difference between “who you were, who you are now, [and] what’s the new normal.”
She explains that following a traumatic event, survivors might find they’re hyper-anxious, or especially vigilant, jumping at the sound of someone dropping a bag. They might find it hard to concentrate. They might be overcome with uncontrollable emotions, or feel numb. They might have trouble with their memories, they might exhibit impulsive behavior, they might undereat or overeat. There’s no one way to feel.
Such reactions also ring true for anyone watching the news at home who sees the graphic imagery and finds themselves right back at the scene of a shooting at their high school; or re-experiencing the fallout from a shooting in their own community; or plunged back into the sadness they felt after sudden loss, whatever its source. In a country where gun violence is unfortunately ubiquitous, the trauma of a school shooting touches many more people than just a particular student body. There are parents, there are teachers, there are people with parallel experiences, and there is widespread fear.
And thankfully, there are ways to cope. Teen Vogue spoke with experts to figure out what you can do to start feeling better now.
Let Your Feelings Unfold at Their Own Pace
Trauma doesn’t unfold along a prearranged timeline, and there’s no expiration date on grief. When “we’re talking about PTSD and we’re talking about these horrendous situations,” says Veronica Vaiti, LCSW-R, director and co-founder of NYC Therapy Group, “there’s so much … to contend with, first the immediacy of this: how do I make sense of the unthinkable?”
There’s the blow that comes when you open your phone to text your friend and realize you can’t anymore; there’s anger, and confusion, and anxiety. Achievements and events, like graduation and prom, that might have inspired excitement a few weeks ago are now freighted with the “constant reminder” that many friends and classmates didn’t make those milestones, “and that can be very heavy and very guilt-inducing,” Vaiti explains. Set aside the idea of what’s normal and what’s not: feelings will come up and they won’t necessarily make sense, Torres said — you might find that you want to scream, you might find that you want to laugh. Let your body react the way it wants to.
Find a Safe Space
That might be easier said than done, however, especially when your understanding of comfort has just been fundamentally altered. What’s particularly difficult about a school shooting — or a shooting in a place of worship, or a shooting in an office building — is the way it obligates survivors to return to the site of trauma, and challenges the notion of a safe space. And yet “creating safety on all levels,” Vaiti says, “reestablishing a safe space,” is crucial to coping with trauma.
A safe space might be music; it might be talking with friends; it might be home; it might be a counselor’s office; it could be a hotline, a number you can call where you know someone will just sit with you and listen. You shouldn’t feel guilty for allowing yourself distractions or joy. Seek out the people, places, and things that bring you comfort.
That, too, might be difficult if that place was a school, or that person was a victim. It helps, Vaiti says, to find someone who can help your process trauma in its immediate aftermath, who can help you build a support system. A therapist can help you find ways to restructure your thoughts so that they don’t always lead you back to the event; they can guide you toward different imagery, and help you surface positive, comforting memories. They can sit silently with you when you need silence, offer an ear when you need to yell, help you identify what you need when you need it.
Counseling is often expensive, especially for patients without insurance. There are free and low-cost mental health services, however, and victims organizations — like Safe Horizon — you can call for help when you need it.
Try to Find a Vocabulary for Your Feelings
A therapist or counselor can also help you find anchoring words to describe how you’re feeling, and that label might help you feel like the emotion is real, like you’re not “losing it,” Torres says.
“Trauma is heavy, it’s like the elephant in the room, let’s identify the elephant in the room; let’s not ignore it. Ignoring it just makes the elephant get big,” she adds. “If we talk about [trauma], it doesn’t become the elephant in the room. That elephant in the room is going to get smaller and smaller and smaller.”
Talking doesn’t have to happen immediately, though: it should happen when you’re ready. But if you can’t undo the past, it’s crucial to find words you can use to address it, to describe what’s going on inside your head, without retraumatizing yourself.
Commemorate Your Loved Ones
To that end, it helps to change the imagery you associate with the person or thing you lost. This is particularly true in the age of social media, where graphic photos and videos immediately go viral with every new tragedy. You want to get to a place where you can remember your friend, for example, without that picture surface in your mind.
Try to think of it this way, Torres says: “I don’t want to focus five years from now or a year from now on how he or she died; I know that. No one needs to tell me that, but I want to remember the last time we ran a race together, how he or she made me laugh because that’s where you’re going to see me smile. You’re going to see me smile if you ask me to talk about a pleasant memory or a funny story, you’re going to see me react to it.”
When you’re ready, consider doing some of the things your friend liked to do; watching the TV shows they liked to watch; listening to the music they liked. “Graduation is coming, Mother’s Day is coming, you have all these holidays where you’re missing a person, where you’re thinking, ‘Wow, he or she and I would be doing something like this,’” Torres says. “What can you do on that day to commemorate this person, so you’re not focusing on how he or she died but you’re focusing on how he or she lived?”