Managing the Trauma of Tragedy

February 21, 2023

NOTE: This message refers to sensitive details that may be triggering regarding the violence our community experienced. Resources and assistance are available through multiple campus programs.

Zakia Alavi headshotZakia Alavi, an associate professor of psychiatry in Michigan State University’s Department of Pediatrics and Human Development in the College of Human Medicine, answers questions about dealing with trauma after a tragic incident, how to deal with returning to normal routines, and how to deal with the feelings of grief, anger and fear that follow.

How can those who have experienced tragedy return to campus and classrooms shortly after? How can they help manage anxiety?  

Anxiety, fear, anger, worry and a whole gamut of intense feelings, given the current conditions, are natural responses to a traumatic event. To some extent, it is also natural to feel uncomfortable revisiting the scene of a traumatic experience. However, studies show that the best way to move forward is to move back to the familiar routine that existed prior to such an event. That said, taking time to process, to grieve and to mourn the losses is important.

The university and our health team have multiple resources available that have been publicized. Please do not hesitate to seek help. It does not have to be a long-drawn-out process. Even a few visits virtually or in person can be helpful.

Is there a time frame for grief and healing when it comes to returning to a place that was the root of the anxiety?

The time frame to grieve and to recover from such an event is variable and depends on many factors — both on the individual level and an environmental level. However, in most cases the first few weeks and up to the first three months can be particularly taxing. Getting back to a routine, being in familiar surroundings and spending time with peers and colleagues brings a sense of safety and a sense of community, which can go a long way toward mitigating the loss of trust and safety in public places.

Students have expressed a variety of emotions related to returning to campus:

“I can’t isolate myself forever, but all I want to do is stay home.”

“I feel like a coward. Should I force myself to go?”

What is your advice to them?

First, know that you are not a coward and that people grieve and react differently to trauma and loss. Sometimes a situation, such as this tragedy, also can reactivate previous traumas and previous losses that were experienced earlier in our lives and were not addressed or were too painful to have been addressed at the time.

The best course of action is to find comfort in community and camaraderie with your peers and your academic colleagues. Help is available if you find it difficult to take that next step. Making time to be with friends, family, as well as peers and colleagues, is a pathway to healing and honoring the lives that have been lost.

As an educator, how can you take time to process this tragedy yourself while still being there for your students?

Educators are the backbone of an academic institution such as ours. Processing trauma takes many different forms. For some of us, it can be as simple as returning to class, connecting with our students and colleagues and finding the comfort of the familiar routine of academia. For others, it may mean going back to our families, spending some extra time with our loved ones and reassuring ourselves that there is safety and comfort and love in our own immediate families. Taking time as an educator to find your balance to ground yourself is important, and it should be a priority for all of us who are educators.

As faculty encounter an influx of student worries and anxiety, how should they thoughtfully respond?

First, take care of yourself; you can’t pour from an empty cup. Going back to class or your other duties on campus can evoke a multitude of feelings ranging from grief, anger, helplessness to sadness and a desire to avoid being in a space where such difficult and traumatic events took place. It is good to acknowledge these mixed feelings when talking to each other and especially when talking to your students, who are likely to be going through similar experiences themselves.

Many survivors report being jumpy and wary in public following a traumatic event. Is this hypervigilance? Is it related to PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a well-studied and well-known condition. There are three major domains of symptoms for PTSD — hypervigilance, which can surface as being jumpy or easy to startle; hyperarousal, which can present as difficulty falling asleep or difficulty experiencing a calm state of mind; and emotional detachment or numbness that can alternate with periods of intense emotional reactions.

During the first few days, even the first 90 days of such a traumatic experience, most of us will experience some elements of these symptoms. The important thing to remember is that most individuals recover from these temporary symptoms, heal and move on without developing a fully realized PTSD diagnosis.

Over the next few weeks or months, you should begin to experience an equilibrium in your emotional, mental and physical functioning. Everyone is different, though, and will require different time frames to do so. However, if time progresses and you find things are getting worse instead of better, then please seek professional help as your next step in healing. 

Resources and assistance are available through multiple campus programs.