As we return to normal life in the aftermath of terror attacks, whether in synagogues, churches, or other settings in our local communities, how do we cope?
“All feelings are normal following traumatic events,” explains Dr. Shiri Ben Naim, head of Rehabilitation Psychology at the Hadassah Medical Center. “What is not normal is the traumatic event.”
Dr. Ben Naim explains that while we need to be aware of ominous events in the world and be vigilant about such things as anti-Semitism, we must also believe in the possibility of having a normal daily life. As she says, “We cannot live our normal lives if we continually tell ourselves that the world is a dangerous place.”
When individuals experience a trauma, whether it be a terror attack, sexual abuse, or a car accident, their reactions can run the gamut from anxiety to hopelessness to helplessness. They may feel shame or guilt because of the way they are handling the trauma. Dr. Ben Naim, also director of Hadassah’s Neuropsychiatry Clinic and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center, emphasizes that since all of these reactions are normal during the first few weeks post-trauma, there is no reason to seek professional help at this early stage. In fact, she says, 90 percent of people will prove resilient following a traumatic event and cope well without professional help.
Dr. Ben Naim draws a parallel to the death of a loved one. Just as during the week of mourning (shiva) that Jews observe, the mourner does not require professional intervention despite experiencing a range of intense emotions, so, too, individuals who suffer a traumatic event require no intervention at this point. Typically, as the days turn to weeks and then to months, the person who lost a loved one or experienced other trauma gradually improves.
The important thing, Dr. Ben Naim explains, is for family members and friends to encourage the person not to avoid typical activities, but rather to resume his or her normal life. It’s also crucial for family and friends to validate a person’s feelings, she adds. Sometimes, in an attempt to be helpful, family members may react to a person’s intense emotions by saying, “You are making a mountain out of a molehill.” Or, “You should not feel that way.” Or, “You are okay, so there is nothing to be so traumatized about.” Dr. Ben Naim cautions that this does not help the person heal!
Dr. Ben Naim also advises those who have undergone trauma to keep their sleep patterns as normal as possible, and she tells them to avoid taking medications that have not been prescribed especially for them.
If the person does not experience significant emotional improvement after several months, but rather continues to deteriorate emotionally, it’s time for professional help. Those individuals who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may exhibit physical symptoms, such as headaches, vomiting, seizures, and even paralysis, often a result of their not being able to process their emotions or to verbalize them.
Through treatment, those suffering from PTSD learn to put the traumatic event in perspective, Dr. Ben Naim explains. They learn to give it a “proportionate place,” while acknowledging what is still stable in their lives–their relationships and community, for example.
What about first responders, physicians, nurses, and social workers who routinely care for individuals suffering from PTSD? Dr. Ben Naim notes that although there is PTSD among this group, their work also provides a “protective element” because they know they are doing something meaningful to help.
Whatever the source of the trauma, Dr. Ben Naim emphasizes, “believing that the world is a safe place is a healthy perspective, as long as we take the proper precautions to keep ourselves safe.”