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Life According To Lenson

Psychologically Safe From Colorado Shootings?
Posted by Eileen Lenson on Jul 22, 2012 - 11:12:57 AM

When a heavily armored assailant burst into a dark movie theater this week, killing 12 and injuring another 58, most people in the United States were geographically far removed from the suburban Colorado scene.  Yet, even though most of us were among the fortunate ones, not having to experience the horror of fearing for their lives, or watching others get injured or die, many were deeply impacted by this event.

Two days following the movie theater mass murder, I received a new client.  "I can't stop crying, I can't seem to focus on anything, and I don't know why, "the 42 year old woman tearfully explained.  In our session I learned that her son had died suddenly, four year prior, in a drive-by shooting.  Watching the Colorado news broadcasts about the unexpected loss of lives brought back the grief and powerlessness she had felt when her son died.

One does not need to be in physical harm's way to experience traumatic stress. Disruptive emotional upset can occur from watching the television news, and hearing repeated reports about how unprepared the moviegoers were for an assault that included exploding tear gas canisters, bullets and body armor.Hearing government officials discuss recommended changes in movie theater security brings to light how powerless attendees in large gathering places are in preventing such calculated cruel behavior.  The fact that this is the second mass murder in Colorado in recent times, the first being at Columbine High School, reminds us that such events do happen repeatedly and unexpectedly to the innocent. 

Everyone will respond differently to this latest horrific event.  To some, the upsetting reactions may be brief, and dissipate as the news coverage dies down.  These agonizing feelings may reoccur when news coverage increases, such as the trial or the anniversary date.  Or, as in the case of my client, a re-occurrence of a related incident.

Common emotional reactions may include sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, irritability, and withdrawal from friends and activities.While the range of reactions to a horrendous experience will vary, some behaviors can serve as red flags that the person, such as my new client, requires professional help to recover from the trauma. People struggling with the emotional repercussions of a trauma can often benefit from professional help. They may experience flashbacks, feel emotionally numb, depressed, be easily frightened, and suffer memory loss. Their sleep can be affected with insomnia and nightmares.  They may have difficulty functioning at work, finding any quality in their personal relationships, or even finding joy in life.

It is not a sign of weakness to experience symptoms, or to reach out and receive help.  Many of our nation's finest - including military returning from fighting in wars overseas - find the need to receive professional help following exposure to incomprehensible horror.

To help oneself and other family members, here are some things you may experience and suggestions:

1.  Expect young children to regress temporarily. Under stress, children may temporarily revert to the behaviors of a previous developmental stage, such as thumb sucking or become clingy.  The child should not be reprimanded for this but instead be supported. 

2.  Young children are egocentric, and may believe that they are the cause for parental upset.  Assure children that they are not responsible for what occurred. 

3.  Children will take their lead from their parents. If the children are able to see their parents moving ahead with their lives and keeping a normal routine, they in turn will adjust more quickly.

4.  Limit exposure to repetitive reporting of the news related to the shooting.  It can be emotionally overloading for children as well as adults.  Children may interpret each repeated reporting to be a unique shooting.

5.  Keep up a normal routine as much as possible.  Avoid the inclination to withdraw and isolate oneself.  Routine provides structure, and structure is comforting.

6.  Be mindful of eating correctly and exercising regularly.

7.  Talk to others.  Repressing one's feelings will not make the hurt go away, and will result in a delayed recovery.

8.  Be tolerant and patient.  Don't judge yourself or others for their feelings. All feelings are valid.

9.  Sometimes people feel guilty being happy following a national tragedy.  Schedule time for fun and enjoyable activities.  It is an important part of the process of moving forward.

Eileen Lenson, MSW, ACSW, Board Certified Coach, is a life coach in private practice.  Prior to becoming a life coach, she was a licensed clinical social worker for 20 years.  During that period of time she worked extensively with trauma victims, and spoke internationally on her work with families dealing with the loss of a loved one.  For further information, write to her at, or visit her website at  


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