Coping in the Aftermath. Hope. Faith. Danforth Strong.

By Angie Holstein, MSW, RSW – Registered Social Worker/Psychotherapist

We are all struggling to understand and make sense of the Danforth shooting. We are grieving, shocked, angry, confused, scared, bewildered and more emotions than could ever be listed. Within this bewilderment, hope and strength inevitably rises up as we have seen from the vigils, flower memorials, and #danforthstrong initiatives.

Although most individuals, families and communities bounce back after difficult times, events such as this one naturally interrupt our sense of order and safety. We grieve along with the victims and their families. The impact is felt by those in the community, as well as those living far outside the area; people who have no personal connection to the event.

It is not uncommon for people of all ages to experience stress reactions when exposed to mass violence. This includes live video images. How someone responds is personal. Stress reactions are often exacerbated when we struggle to understand why the violence occurred without adequate satisfactory answers to these questions.

Common stress reactions people experience: changes in eating and sleeping routines, decreased energy, lowered mood, anxiousness, decreased concentration on typical tasks, regressive behaviours in children (clingy, intense emotional reactions) and a strong need for retribution in adults.

These reactions are common and typically pass over time. It may feel like the world is a more dangerous place and it will take time, as well as coping strategies to recover and/or develop a new sense of equilibrium.

A few tips to consider::

    • Monitor your emotional health; it will be normal to have a wider range of emotions during this time and know others are likely experiencing the same. Validate your feelings with compassionate self talk. “I’m scared right now and the world feels unsafe.” “I know that it is normal to feel angry right now and that I can use my resilience to take care of myself.” Validation of feelings and compassionate self talk are known to soothe the nervous system that can be on high alert following traumatic events. Remind yourself that time, patience and self compassion are part of the healing process.
    • Manage your trauma input: Turn it off and take a break.  While it is important to stay informed, media portrayals of shootings and mass deaths have been shown to cause acute stress and even posttraumatic stress symptoms.
    • Stay connected: Maintain contact with friends and family. These individuals can provide you with emotional support to help deal with difficult times. Try engaging in pleasurable activities with those you care for or care for you to distract yourself and lift your spirits.
    • Take care of yourself with the basics: Try to engage in healthy behaviours to manage your stress reactions and emotional turmoil. These include eating regular healthy meals, exercising, getting outdoors and practicing good sleep habits. If you are having difficulty sleeping try a guided meditation, a breathing exercise, write out your thoughts 45 – 60 minutes before bedtime and/or engage in a relaxing activity such as a warm bath. Avoid substances such as alcohol and drugs as they suppress emotions that need to be processed during this time.
    • Focus on your strengths. Maintain practices that you have found to provide emotional relief during difficult times in your life. Remind yourself of people and events which are meaningful and comforting.
    • Talk about it. Talking with people who care about you and who are willing to listen is essential. Especially those who are experiencing the same thing, such as your friends, neighbours, colleagues and family. Research has shown us that talking about worries throughout the day can increase feelings of anxiety, so yes do talk about it, but not to excess. Use additional strategies noted here or from your personal resources to create balance.  
    • Recognize the ups and downs, including survivor guilt (feelings of guilt and shame that you survived when others did not). If you have lost a friend or family member to this violent event or others, it is important to remind yourself that grief is a long process. It is not a linear process, meaning always getting better. It is an up and down process that requires time and support to experience your feelings and recover.
    • Strive for balance and find something productive to channel the negative emotions such as anger that typically come up following incidences of violence. Remind yourself of people and events that are meaningful and comforting in order to gain a healthier perspective. You may consider participating in a vigil, helping others, locating a resource in your community, attending a Danforth Strong service, lighting a candle or placing a flower/letter at a memorial site. The point is to consider things to do that can channel the anger, grief and shock into an action; no matter how big or small that action may be.
    • Soothe yourself; both mind and body. Consider meditation and self compassion. Schedule and practice a pause everyday. Sometimes the thought of this can be overwhelming so start by building in even one mindful moment in a week and see what happens with your momentum. Celebrate your efforts. Consider apps such as donothingfor2minutes.com or stopbreathethink.org.

Using your own personal resilience and some of the tips mentioned above may be sufficient to get through the aftermath of this crisis. For some individuals, their emotions can get stuck and they struggle to manage intense reactions. If the stress reactions noted above are persisting, interfering in your activities of daily life and/or worsening, a licensed mental health professional can support you or someone you know with moving forward. Struggling with the aftermath is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength to recognize when to get help. Speak with your medical practitioner or see resources below for options.

Moving forward can seem difficult to imagine. Trust in your ability to get through the coming days and persevere with strength. Danforth Strong.

“Strength grows in the moments when you think you can’t go on but keep going anyway.”

For additional resources:

Psychotherapy services: search online on sites such as Psychology Today or asking for referrals from your medical practitioner.

Public Health 416-338-7600 Monday – Friday 830 am to 430 pm.

Distress Centres: Feeling in crisis or needing emotional support: 416-408-4357(HELP) for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.