SPSCC professors share strategies for coping with trauma

After the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut last month, many people asked themselves the question, “How do you cope after such a tragedy?”

Amanda Ybarra, a human relations psychology professor at South Puget Sound Community College, said the answer to this question is a single word, communication.

Kathryn Clancy, another professor in SPSCC’s psychology department, said that individuals who have been through something traumatic often isolate themselves, when really they should be in the company of family, friends, and people who can support them.

According to both professors, there is no exact way to approach someone who has been through this kind of trauma because everyone responds differently.

“Some people will maintain that they’re fine,” said Clancy. “Others will say, ‘I’m a mess.’”

Clancy said trained counselors who have expertise in crisis counseling should be brought in to these situations. These counselors are taught how to react to specific types of trauma response so that people get the specialized help they need.

Clancy said the coping strategies of adults are different than the strategies of children.

“Children, depending on their age, lack the ability to completely understand reality compared to adults,” she said. As adults, she said, we can look at a situation like the Sandy Hook massacre and understand that such an event is highly unlikely to happen in our workplace or school. Yet, children immediately expect it to happen again, and, at their school, she said.

Clancy said that children are naturally better at dealing with anxiety. Not only do children get over things more quickly – with the appropriate help – but, they are also able to use their imagination as a coping mechanism, a sort of shield to anxiety.

For instance, many children often have a special stuffed animal that they carry with them for protection said Clancy.

Adults, on the other hand often lose their creativity and lack the imagination of childhood. Adults disregard such coping mechanisms as “childish,” but similar ideas can be helpful, she said.

It is important to note that most people tend to focus on coping mechanisms in the short-term aftermath of a tragedy, said Clancy.

However, crises like these have long-lasting effects. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other long-term stress and trauma-related disorders are prevalent in victims of tragedies.

Communication remains key to recovery, not only in the days and weeks following the event, but also in the years and decades afterward, Clancy said. Communication is a lifelong endeavor that should occur, said Ybarra.

Communication can be a crucial key to preventing people from committing violent acts in the first place. According to an article in American Psychological Association, those who are connected to the people in their community are happier, less suicidal, and not as prone to violence. The simple act of talking is one of the best ways to make these valuable connections, according to Ybarra.

While communication and connection are clearly vital components in our lives, they can also prove challenging to initiate. Ybarra offered some guidance on talking with others, especially people who seem shy or less talkative.

She suggested asking a simple question like, “How is your day going?” Ybarra also emphasized that one should refrain from having expectations on how the conversation should go, and not expect people to open up right away.

“If you really want to make a connection,” said Ybarra, “the key is engaging the same person in conversation daily.”

“Ask a person, ‘How are you?’ 10 to 15 times and sooner or later they will likely open up. Although, some people may be content being quiet and may not be looking for further interaction,” she said.

The consistent attempt at making a connection shows people you care and gives them a chance to feel comfortable around you, Ybarra said.

Everyone can benefit from others reaching out to them, and we all benefit from being connected to our community. If we know a person has been identified as being at risk for a psychological disorder or for committing potential violence (either to themselves or others), it is imperative that we all take responsibility for helping these individuals.

If you are feeling as though you would like to speak with someone regarding any of these issues, SPSCC has a great counseling office, said Clancy.

The SPSCC Counseling Office is located in portable M-2, and is part of the Office of Student Life. Or you can call to talk to office personnel at 360-596-5306.

Also, the American Psychological Association is a reliable source that offers more information on coping with tragedy: www.apa.org/school-shooting.aspx.