When National Tragedy Triggers Mental -- and Physical -- Pain

My son was 8 days old on the day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris set out to massacre their classmates at Columbine. Like many people, I sat glued to the television, watching the drama unfold on a non-stop loop. With my newborn son nursing and my toddler daughter coloring nearby, I wept and then hugged my babies tight. How, I wondered, do innocent baby boys grow up to become mass murderers?

On September 11, 2001, I dropped my children off at school at about the same time terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Once again, I sat in front of the television, watching the horror unfold for days. My body shook, and the tears and sorrow flowed once more.

And then — I stopped watching the news. I disengaged for my own peace of mind. I couldn’t be a calm, nurturing presence for my children if I fell prey to fear. News outlets were shamelessly using our collective trauma and pain to increase their ratings and sell more ad time. The tragedies were bad enough. We didn’t need them to be sensationalized for public consumption.

After that, I turned to the internet for information. It allowed me more control and more freedom. In the early 2000s, internet news wasn’t quite the sensational clickbait it is today. News was still written mostly by professionals who followed journalistic standards. Blogging and social media were supposed to be the great democratizers. And despite their positives, they opened the gates to what we have now: 24/7 unlimited exposure to bombastic opinions and incendiary debates that can be both destructive and polarizing. The internet proved to be an effective tool for propagandists, conspiracy theorists and lobbyists. And it is often unsourced, unverified and irresponsible information-sharing that cannot be avoided  — unless you unplug from the web completely.

In the dark days following the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I have come close to going off the grid.

It’s not that I am in denial or that I want to stay in my small, protective bubble. The problem for me is for the past five years I have been living with a chronic, debilitating illness. I just recently learned my long-term issues with chronic pain and inflammation are most likely in part a result of my own unresolved childhood trauma. Every time there is a national or global tragedy, my body and brain automatically do what they learned to do a long time ago in order to survive: go into fight-or-flight.

In the last week, I began suffering from daily, constant, debilitating migraines. I barely have the energy to get up and face the day. I have trouble sleeping at night. Last night, my migraine came on so quickly, I feared I was having a stroke. The night before I couldn’t calm the pounding of my heart in my chest. I don’t think it is a coincidence that my body, brain, heart and soul have been hurting since Valentine’s Day. I have been absorbing pain and suffering for as long as I can remember. While I consider my empathy and compassion to be positive traits, I also understand that toxic-stress wreaks havoc on my fragile system. Instead of protecting me, my over-reactive stress response system undermines my mental, emotional and physical stability. And it disrupts my ability to heal.During this past year, I came upon the work of doctors, researchers and writers who specialize in trauma, specifically adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their long-term effects on health. In her book, “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity,” Dr. Nadine Burke Harris writes:

Twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades. It can tip a child’s developmental trajectory and affect physiology. It can trigger chronic inflammation and hormonal changes that can last a lifetime. It can alter the way our DNA is read and how cells replicate, and it can dramatically increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes — even Alzheimer’s.

The research on toxic-stress suggests a major strategy for targeting and healing an over-reactive stress response is through lifestyle changes (sleep, mental health, healthy relationships, exercise, nutrition), as well as mindfulness techniques. I began diligently employing my own mindfulness practices (writing, meditating, yoga, walking, swimming, chanting, connecting with nature) in an attempt to calm my dysfunctional stress-response system. And while I have made some progress, every time a national or international tragedy occurs and my social media feeds fill up polarizing debates and attacks, I feel my fight-or-flight response immediately kick back into high gear.

For those of us with personal trauma, social media can be triggering and exhausting during periods of national trauma. Still, it is not all bad. These tragedies often help me weed out toxic online friends. I also see the immense value of this instant collective mourning — I see love, courage, humanity, faith and grace expressed. I see kids taking on the establishment and calling BS on grownups and politicians who refuse to change. This generation of kids grew up in a post-911, post-Columbine, possibly post-Newtown world, where they have been inundated with tragedy and fed a steady stream of trauma and fear. I admire the resilience, strength and activism of the Parkland survivors. I understand their desire to fight back in the face of tragedy. But…

I have been a “fighter” my entire life. I understand you can be brave and strong on the outside while your traumatized brain is sending your body a very different message: “We are not safe. We must be on the alert. We must never let down our guard. We must never stop fighting.”

It has taken me 50 years to realize that being in a constant state of arousal and vigilance is no way to live. A body and brain constantly fighting an unseen or unbeatable enemy will eventually, in time, break down. In this digital age, invisible enemies and internet trolls are ubiquitous, constantly stoking controversy for clicks. Their goal is to get an emotional response from us. And for the most part, it is working. We are a polarized nation, often at each other’s digital throats. It is in times like these, that even I, the seasoned “fighter” who rarely backs down — chooses “flight.” I disengage from the news and the online tussle, and I look for healing solutions within. I go back to my mindfulness training.

Meanwhile, where does that leave our traumatized children? Yes, children are resilient, and many find a way to thrive even under the worst conditions life throws at them. However, research shows this is most true for traumatized children who are given consistent love, comfort and support from the adults in their lives. I know it is exciting to see the children leading this latest fight, but as grownups we have to step up and do our part. We have to let kids be kids. We have to be role models who fight for justice with uniting and healing words, actions and hearts, instead of hurling hate-filled, destructive accusations at each other in the online arena.

We have to heal together and not just hope our kids survive what’s out there. We have to help them thrive.

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Photo by Louis Blythe on Unsplash

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