Coping with the aftermath of the Boston tragedy
Musicians and dancers from high school marching bands stretched and rehearsed on the National Mall on Tuesday morning as police cars blocked surrounding streets. The heavy police presence wasn’t just there to clear the way for students to step off in the D.C. Emancipation Day Parade, which commemorates the end of slavery in Washington in 1862. It was also connected to the bombing the day before at a much larger public event — the Boston Marathon.
A decade ago, parents might have been leery about allowing their children to march out in the open along the route of terror that originated in Boston and New York on Sept. 11, 2001, or later when the D.C. Sniper had the region on lockdown. But some people say they aren’t going to let “some sicko,” as one man put it, literally rain on their parade.
Instead of fear, there was anger over the Boston bombings and the gridlocked intersections from the White House to the U.S. Capitol.
“Will I avoid large crowds? Probably not,” says Flo McAfee, who runs a strategic communications firm in the Washington area. “You can’t be afraid to live. That’s just how we were raised.”
“I grew up with a father who was in the military,” McAfee says. “He went to Vietnam twice.” Living on military bases around the world, her family was always “under a “halo of constant danger.” She also had uncles in Mississippi who had to flee their homes to avoid being lynched. Later, she worked with the Secret Service on the advance team for President Clinton as a special assistant in his administration.
Mark Baugh, a marathoner, trainer and coach in the Washington area, also refuses to live in fear or to let the perpetrators of such a “disgusting” act win. “No way I’m going to let that stop what we do,” he emphasized. “Ever!”
Baugh, an elite runner who has competed in seven marathons, including Boston in 1988, grew up watching it year after year when his family lived along the route. His friends who participated this year were unharmed.
Another marathoner, Stephanie Frederic, has a similar stance. “I’m hurt,” Fredric says, “but I’m not going to let it stop me.”
She runs recreationally in the Los Angeles Marathon and said that her running group, the LA Leggers, organized a tribute run in honor of those injured and killed in Boston. “That’s how the running community responded,” Frederic says. “We hit the pavement.”
Getting back in the groove is the best course of action, advises William B. Lawson, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Howard University. This can range from running again in a marathon to enjoying a film at a movie theater.
“The best way is to do what we call exposure therapy — basically go back and do it again,” Dr. Lawson says. “If they find that they cannot do it, get help from a medical professional.”
Understanding the fear
After a tragic event, some people experience a form of vicarious trauma or secondary traumatization even from a distance, says Annelle B. Primm, M.D., M.P.H., deputy medical director of the American Psychiatric Association and director of the Office of Minority and National Affairs.
In a national study conducted during the two months following 9/11, researchers said the prevalence of probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was “significantly associated” with the number of hours watching TV coverage in the first few days and the types of violence viewed. Their work, “Psychological Reactions to Terrorist Attacks,” was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 2002.
In other research reviewed, they also found that intentionally violent events “are more likely to be associated with symptoms of severe psychological distress, including PTSD” than natural disasters.
The combination of fear and risk has made amber alerts; extra security on highways, planes and trains; metal detectors in public buildings; and body searches a way of life. With the marathon bombings, security is also expected to be higher at university graduation ceremonies, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Dealing with tragic news
“People need to recognize that having fearful thoughts is a normal response to a tragic event,” Dr. Primm says. “Once you recognize that you’re not alone in having this feeling, over time you realize that life goes on.”
Here is more advice on dealing with tragic news:
Find healthy ways to cope. “People should take care of themselves,” Dr. Primm says. “Go for a walk, or focus on other aspects of your life.”
Take a news break. “One of the very important things is to avoid constantly looking at footage of the tragedy,” Dr. Primm says. “The temptation for many people is to continue watching the footage to keep up on the latest development. Be very careful and measured about that, because that can reinforce the negative impact. That only intensifies some of the fear and discomfort.”
Key a close eye on children. Monitor their media exposure to tragedies, and answer their questions honestly in an age-appropriate manner. “When children ask questions multiple times, it’s usually because they’re looking for reassurance, “Dr. Primm explains. “They worry about their own safety and the safety of their family, friends and neighbors.”
Put things in perspective. Most people are more at risk for everyday activities, such as riding in a car, than a bomb threat, Dr. Lawson says. “The important thing to recognize is that we need to look at life in its full context.”
Monitor physical and emotional changes. Dr. Primm recommends contacting a medical professional if you experience persistent symptoms of depression, lingering feelings of fear and anxiety that make it difficult to go to work, marital problems, family stress, alcohol or substance abuse, difficulty sleeping or angry outbursts.
Don’t let phobias linger. If you haven’t flown on a plane since 9/11 or exercised outdoors because of gunfire in your neighborhood, seek help to address the phobias, return to your previous activities or find alternatives if safety is a serious threat. “Those kind of feelings can be addressed if they seek professional support,” Dr. Lawson points out.
“Bad things do happen,” Dr. Lawson acknowledges. “They shouldn’t make you change your lifestyle.
Yanick Rice Lamb, who specializes in health and social issues, teaches journalism at Howard University.