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Local therapists assess impact of Boston bombings

Heavily armed FBI agents are on the scene on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, Mass., Friday, April 19, 2013.  Two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing killed an MIT police officer, injured a transit officer in a firefight and threw explosive devices at police during a getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left one of them dead and another still at large Friday, authorities said as the manhunt intensified for a young man described as a dangerous terrorist.  (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Heavily armed FBI agents are on the scene on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, Mass., Friday, April 19, 2013. Two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing killed an MIT police officer, injured a transit officer in a firefight and threw explosive devices at police during a getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left one of them dead and another still at large Friday, authorities said as the manhunt intensified for a young man described as a dangerous terrorist. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Purchase photo reprints »

Northampton resident Mark Horwitz, a psychotherapist and assistant professor at Westfield State University’s Department of Social Work, said the psychological impact of Boston’s lockdown will be something experts will be studying in the months and years to come.

“It’s something we’ve been fortunate not to know much about before now,” said Horwitz, who lives in Northampton.

Some of that impact could be positive, he noted.

“As a symbol, a lockdown gives me a sense of safety and security,” Horwitz said. “It’s both reassuring and frightening.

“There’s always a question of how much of a show of force makes people safe,” he added. “I think it’s completely stunning that law enforcement has been able to identify the people who did this and pursue them in such a short period of time.”

When asked whether the Marathon bombings differ from other traumatic events experienced by large numbers of people, Horwitz said Pioneer Valley residents may feel more connected to events in Boston.

“It happened in New England and right in the wake of Sandy Hook,” he said. “So just in the sense of what can happen and what can happen to children” it feels urgent.

Northampton therapist Amy Kahn, co-coordinator of the 18-member Western Massachusetts Trauma Recovery Network, agreed.

“We all felt the aftershocks of 9-11. But this being in Boston, where a lot of us have family and friends, it feels very close,” she said. “It feels like our neighbors are in danger.”

Kahn said the recovery network has received calls from clients since the bombings occurred. “From a single-event trauma it has evolved to this ongoing stress,” she said.

As the hunt for those responsible for the carnage at the Marathon continued Friday with a citywide lockdown in Boston, Kahn said many people remain in a heightened state of anxiety that “can be draining and hard to manage.”

For children, such anxiety can be eased by limiting access to TV and computer screens where images of the bombings are being replayed, she said.

“Children also need to be reassured,” Kahn added. “We can tell them that we feel this is a safe community and everyone is doing a good job, the police and the FBI” to find those responsible for the explosions.

Adults who have a history of trauma may find events of the past few days are a trigger for reliving those experiences, Kahn said. She recommended self-caretaking strategies such as eating healthy food, exercising and trying to maintain a normal work and sleep routine.

“These are things that seem small but they add up to feeling better,” Kahn said.

Meditation, prayer and other practices to reduce stress can also help reduce anxiety, she said.

One other difference is the way digital media has increased the flow of information people are trying to absorb about the bombings, Kahn said.

“It’s easy to get addicted and stay glued to the TV or Internet,” she noted. “That can be exhausting.”

On the other hand, Horwitz said social media also has helped people feel less isolated in the wake of the violence in Boston.

“I hear from my kids on Facebook that there are a zillion posts to parents, ‘I’m OK,’” he said. “There’s a stunning notion that people are not alone.”

PTSD treatment

At the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, Scott Cornelius, the staff psychologist on the hospital’s inpatient PTSD unit, said coverage of the bombings in Boston is especially tough for many veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan around the country who lived through explosions during war.

The sudden loud blasts, billowing smoke, the busy street setting, the bombers hidden in the crowd, the bloodshed and chaos — all were similar to situations countless soldiers faced during their service, he pointed out.

Coverage of the Boston events “can be triggering” for a vet who is already dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, Cornelius said.

Part of the treatment veterans get for PTSD involves helping them become less guarded, tense and hypervigilant so that they can learn to enjoy life and relationships again, Cornelius said. Unfortunately, the bombings undermine that, he said, by reinforcing a veteran’s view that the world is a 24/7 dangerous place.

For therapists who work with vets, Cornelius said that will mean “helping guys consider things from a broader perspective, to see that, objectively, your chances of being hurt in a bombing are pretty slim. But those old habits of avoidance and withdrawal can click in. So we encourage guys to ask for help and use each other for support.”

Cornelius said some people in the Boston area living through the lockdown will likely experience anxiety, sleeplessness or apprehension.

“That’s a normal response, a sign that your nervous system is working well,” he said. It’s reactions that linger and start interfering with daily life that are cause for concern, he said.

Studies show that for most people, reactions to trauma resolve themselves in a few weeks, Cornelius said. In the meantime, he said, the best strategy is “to go on living your life, and stay connected” to others. It’s not good to withdraw from usual activities, or avoid people, Cornelius said, as that behavior can exacerbate problems.

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