Noted New York psychologist says facing fears and anger is critical to prevent the disruption of daily life and relationships
In the wake of the latest terrorizing mass shooting inside a Texas church, on the heels of the October 31 terror attack in New York City called the “deadliest in the city since 9/11,” internationally known psychologist Dr. Judy Kuriansky offers advice to help the public cope.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky provided mental health support after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in December 2012 and after the 9/11 terror attacks for both first responders at the “pit” and for families at the Family Assistance Center.
“These attacks on people innocently going about their normal lives in church or on a lovely afternoon on city streets are added shocks on the heels of the tragic Las Vegas massacre of concertgoers, requiring that emotions must be addressed about daily dangers”.
She adds that advice about coping is essential, given that events like these have become increasingly common. Kuriansky has also provided psychosocial support after terrorist attacks in the Middle East, which she documented in her book, Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Grassroots Peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Research shows the long-term effects of such traumas, emphasizing the urgency for psychological help in the immediate aftermath,” Kuriansky adds.
Dr. Judy advises:
• Talk about fears. These are escalated now, since mass shootings target innocent people, and since “new” weapons of terrorists are common items like knives and vehicles rather than guns or suicide vests, and new targets are “soft” rather than high profile American symbols like the Twin Towers or the Capitol. Best practices in psychology recommend to feel the fear and adjust to a “new normal” to prevent fears from leading to phobias about daily activities. Don’t obsess about thoughts that these attacks could happen to you.
• Direct anger where it belongs. Get mad at mass shooters or terrorists to avoid the typical psychological tendency to project aggression at people at home or work. Partners should especially share reactions and accept any differences in their ways of coping to prevent arguments.
• Uncover associations to your past. Publicized victimizations can trigger repressed memories of times you were a victim or mistreated, even decades ago, as outlined in a report in the American Psychologist. Process old experiences and separate them from the present.
• Notice prejudices and xenophobia. These can be triggered by specifics of the perpetrator’s profile, whether it be the Texas shooter having been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, or the NYC terrorist being identified as a religious extremist, shouting, “God is Great” in Arabic. Be kind to Muslims and whoever the “other” is to you.
• Pay particular attention to children. Since youngsters were murdered in the church shooting, and children in NYC were injured on a school bus, parents’ fears for children’s safety are aroused. Since children can be exposed to news about such attacks through social media or from schoolmates, prevent them from spreading myths and fears by talking to them about the events. Child developmental psychology indicates this is the time to give extra comfort and pay particular attention to any changes in their behavior.
• Accept reality. There is no absolute safety or perfect protection for you and your children. Indeed, churchgoing and afternoon strolls should be safe. But, as teens who watched the NYC terrorist from their Stuyvesant High School windows said, “We’ve lost our innocence.” Officials wisely advise, “Be vigilant” and, “If you see something, say something.” Measurement of the psychological principle of “locus of control” shows that even people who feel “captain of their fate” may accept that destiny plays a role; after all, you can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take breaks from being “on guard” to reduce stress. Also, trust authorities; they have averted some threats.
• Learn about mass shooters, terrorists and terrorism. Knowledge reduces fear. Such individuals are different types with varied motivations. Don’t generalize that all are mentally disturbed; that leads to stigma against mental illness. Psychopathy and narcissism are common dynamics. With regard to terrorism, educate yourself about the ideology of radical extremism, foreign fighters, “lone wolves” and abusive use of the Internet. These aspects are outlined in the newly released book, A New Counter-Terrorism Strategy: Why the World Failed to Stop Al-Qaeda And ISIL/ISIS And How To Defeat Terrorists Now (ABC-CLIO, 2017) by former Ambassador of Iraq to the UN, Hamid Al-Bayati. Older methods of terrorism used WMDs – weapons of mass destruction – but newer tactics use “Weapons of Mass Psychological Destruction” that aim to erode our emotions, as explained by psychologist Dr. Larry James in his book with that title.
• Get active. Action reduces anxiety and increases a sense of control. Encourage schools to educate youth about such events, perpetrators and violence, and to hold memorials when appropriate. Put pressure on congressional leaders to prioritize public safety and on social media companies to prevent abuse of technology that encourages violence. Participate in a local media campaign.
• Re-examine your philosophy of life. It’s normal to have an existential crisis about the purpose of life, but don’t lose faith. Violent perpetrators don’t win when you get on with your life and go to church as usual, and as New Yorkers did, celebrate Halloween and enjoy the city’s marathon as scheduled. Be resilient: when knocked down, get back up. Violence is tragic but not a reason to give up on life, hope and believing in others.