Handling Strong Emotions When the Unthinkable Happens—To Someone Else

Warning: this post refers to the December 2, 2015 shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. It is meant to help people who were not directly involved in those events, but who are nonetheless experiencing emotional distress.

On the morningof December 2, 2015, the unthinkable happened here in the Inland Empire. Two armed people entered the Inland Regional Center, killed 14 people, and wounded over 20 more. I was talking to Sherry in the waiting room when Jill came out of her office and told us the awful news of what was happening just a few miles away. Stunned as I was, I had clients to see and that's what I concentrated on. As long as I was busy with the problems of others, I was fine. Only when I was about to drive home to Redlands and my husband texted me that the FBI was investigating a house on Center Street did I feel any fear. I arrived home safely, of course, watched the news and took phone calls from family and friends. The next morning I drove past Center Street on my way to an early appointment. The street was cordoned off with yellow tape and police cars. According to the morning news, the house on Center had been a "bomb factory." I was suddenly so nauseated that I had to stop and get a soda to settle my stomach. When I got home I curled up on the couch under a blanket, cried, slept for hours, and woke up feeling like I had been hit by a truck. I watched a little news, talked with my family, went to sleep very early and had nightmares. The next day I was functional again. The whole event seemed surreal.


As a therapist I recognized these as normal stress reactions. I was not at the Regional Center, and I don't know any of the dead or wounded. But this happened in my community and it hit me hard.

Each person reacts to terrible things in her or his own way, and everyone has a different threshold for what constitutes a traumatic event. Some will shake their heads and go on with their day, others will go to a vigil, hug their kids, look at the sunset, or have a stiff drink. Others may react as I did, but think, "I wasn't there. Why am I feeling so bad?" or worse yet, "I shouldn't be feeling so bad." But the fact remains that they are feeling bad. In the wake of a public trauma, it's important to be honest with ourselves about how we are doing. Here are some common reactions:

Depression

Anger

Crying

Emotional numbness

Insomnia or sleeping more than usual

Nightmares

Loss of appetite

Being easily startled

Feeling fearful for no reason

Hypervigilance

For most people, these feelings will soon fade on their own and life will go on. Self care practices such as exercise, time spent with family and friends, meditation, prayer, volunteer work, reading, hobbies, and focusing on the here and now can all help. However, if symptoms persist for more than a few weeks and interfere with your daily life, then it's time to see a therapist to discuss your level of anxiety and/or depression. It's ok to need a little extra help, and talking with a therapist can be very reassuring.

In short, even if you are not directly involved in terrible events, you can still be affected by them. It's part of being human.