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Dealing With the Emotional Trauma of This Week’s Events
A Georgetown University psychologist explains normal versus abnormal reactions and how to handle them. By Carol Ross Joynt
Comments () | Published April 18, 2013
Photograph of Dass-Brailsford courtesy of Georgetown.

It has been a week of unusually traumatic news, with the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday and the Texas fertilizer plant explosion Wednesday night. Both events were sudden, unexpected, and led to deaths and injuries and heavy coverage in the news media. While these events happened hundreds of miles away from Washington, the psychological impact transcends the road map. In a post-9/11 culture, memories of past trauma can be quickly revived by current events, prompting anxiety and the obvious questions: Can it happen here? Could it happen to me or my loved ones? Dr. Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, says these reactions are normal and expected. She admits even she, when her husband described to her the carnage in Boston, said, “Stop, stop, I don’t want to hear anymore.”

Dass-Brailsford, who did her undergraduate work in South Africa and received her graduate degrees at Boston College and Harvard, is a certified first responder, ready to provide immediate crisis intervention and counseling should an emergency happen in the Washington area. She performed this role in New Orleans in the first week after Hurricane Katrina and on 9/11. She came to Georgetown University in 2008. We talked on Thursday morning about the general emotional impact of this week’s news.

Do you view this week as having an unusual impact on the public?

Of course. What happened is tragic and unbelievable, and it took people out of their comfort zones.

Were we significantly in our comfort zones?

After Osama bin Laden was captured, even though there is still high security at airports, at some level people began to let their guard down. That’s a natural human tendency to do that. Time tends to allow people to get comfortable. The other issue is that no one in their wildest dreams would have expected something like this at a marathon.

What is the impact of something happening unexpectedly at a seemingly not-vulnerable event like a marathon?

What made this different is because of the place, a marathon. Most of the [terror] incidents have happened at airports, military installations, on transportation, or at institutions. At schools, at institutions, people entered the building and then attacked. This was just an open space; people were watching an event. It terrorizes more than something you would expect to have happen in the sense that when you look at the definition of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] it is an event that is unexpected and causes intense fear and helplessness, and that’s exactly what this incident did.

Would this have more in common with the shootings in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater?

Yes. People went to the marathon with the intention of being entertained. No one thought that day, “Okay, I need to make sure I’m safe.” They went with their guard completely down. I have watched the marathon for several years. There’s a lot of security, but the security is to keep the crowds at bay. It’s a relaxed, pleasant event.

What are the normal emotional reactions to traumatic events in the news, whether it’s the Boston bombings or the explosion in Texas?

People feel hopeless. Apathy. There’s a state of fear, of hyper-vigilance. It brings back a lot of the stuff that happened with other big events, like 9/11, when the whole nation was in a state of alert. The fact that no one has been arrested adds to the feelings of tension, anxiety, and fear, so people won’t sleep well. And for people who have already experienced traumatic events [firsthand]—for example, the military—it all comes back, and no one feels safe.

But it’s normal to have these feelings?

Absolutely. These symptoms, while troubling, are normal reactions after an event like Boston.

What’s not normal?

When it persists for more than a month or two. Not having a reaction is a reaction, too. It means shock and numbness.

What about area runners who were in Boston for the race, whether at the blast site or not?

They could have a delayed reaction, even if not at the blast. You could also be someone who runs regularly and not at the race but thinking about qualifying for a race in the future. It’s a natural reaction to say, “That could have been me.”

It’s the hardest for the people who were in the immediate vicinity. We hope they are getting counseling. Some people might think they don’t need it. Talking about it helps. Talking about it with other people who may have been there would help. Events like this tend to bring the victims together in an interesting way, because they share in the experience and have a shared traumatic experience as a result.

What is the impact of watching the images on television, especially seeing the same gruesome images often?

People have a natural curiosity to watch television, but we can’t control the images that are shown to us. Some people watch the same thing over and over, and at some level it gets normalized for them. It is very unhealthy to do that. Don’t watch it. Read something, where you have more control over the images.

How do people going forward deal with the anxiety of watching a marathon or being along any parade route?

Some people will just not do it. Most people are going to be afraid to be in open spaces, among large crowds. It will cross their minds that “this is a potential place to be bombed.” That’s how people in a country where there’s a lot of political upheaval live on a regular basis. Feeling vulnerable, feeling threatened—these are natural feelings that will be around for a little while until these people [responsible for the bombing] are caught, and then there is some closure and distance.

Catching the bomber or bombers will have a significant impact?

If no one is caught, people are left with a lack of closure and a feeling that their life is in danger, because there’s someone out there capable of killing. When trauma happens that is an important aspect: Here’s the person who did it. Then they can begin to recover. People like closure.

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