The deadliest mass shooting in modern US history occurred in the evening hours of Sunday, October 1st, in Las Vegas during an outdoor concert. By now we all know the details, the name of the shooter, some of his history, and many names of those killed. But do you also know anyone that survived this horrific incident? Maybe someone you know was there and survived the incident intact but with some cuts and bruises. Or maybe it was you? There were reportedly 22,000 in attendance at the concert so it’s safe to say that many people were impacted.
Because of the life threatening nature of the event in Las Vegas, it’s safe to say that thousands of people will walk away from the experience with not only cuts and bruises but also some confusing emotional responses. I’m here to talk about that.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is now a term heard by the general population more than ever before. Not only are many returning military veterans struggling with the symptoms of this disorder but also any individual who has faced a traumatic event certainly faces the likelihood of developing symptoms. If you, or someone you know, experienced the massacre on Sunday, you could potentially develop symptoms of PTSD and it’s important that you know what to do next.
Certain criteria must be met for the diagnosis of PTSD to be made. First, the individual has to experience, witness, or be confronted by an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury. The individual must ALSO respond by experiencing intense fear, helplessness or horror. If an individual was at the concert on Sunday, they will likely fit this description.
There are three categories of symptoms that point to someone potentially developing PTSD. The first category involves the individual repeatedly re-experiencing various facets of their experience. They ruminate about the sound of gunshots, for instance. They keep remembering the bodies they saw on the ground. They remember crying. They can’t seem to stop thinking about their experience, and they even probably dream about it. What’s important is that these thoughts are INTRUSIVE, DISTRESSING, and PERSISTENT. They can’t seem to stop brooding or ruminating.
The second symptom category is taking great lengths to avoid aspects of the trauma. This often takes the form of not wanting to talk about it, avoiding anything that might remind them of the event, including the news; avoid talking to people who were there with them, or some other reminder of the event. In this case, the person might avoid going to another concert, might avoid large crowds, or might avoid any sounds that remind them of the gunshots, like the sound of motorcycles or fireworks. Another example of something that might occur is the inability to recall an important aspect of the experience. For instance, their timeline is missing important sections and they can’t remember how they got from one place to the next.
And then finally, the third symptom category includes persistent symptoms of increased arousal. That’s a fancy way of saying difficulty falling or staying asleep, outbursts of anger or significant irritability, or an exaggerated startle response. The person is jumpy, easily startled, and feels constantly “on edge.”
If you, or someone you know, seem to fit these descriptions, there are some important things that can be done to make sure the symptoms don’t worsen. First, it’s absolutely essential to get help; specifically, professional help. A therapist who specializes in trauma is trained to help walk you through this experience. Some people reading this might be tempted to think they can do this on your own. THAT thought is absolutely false. The QUICKER you reach out for help, the more likely you’ll heal from this experience and more quickly. And a therapist won’t respond with clichés (i.e. – you should be grateful that you survived this!). Study after study indicates that talking through an event like what happened in Las Vegas is associated with a reduced risk of developing PTSD.
Secondly, it’s absolutely essential that you acknowledge you need help to your family and friends – and that you TALK to them. I say this with a caveat though. If there is a family member or friend that just doesn’t seem to know how to respond to your tears and distress; if they respond in a way that dismisses or invalidates your distress, then find a different friend or family member. Research after research study shows that one of the things that helps someone deal with a life-threatening event the most is the experience of being connected to those you love, of feeling heard and supported. In other words, you must feel socially supported.
Thirdly, try and return to your normal schedule as soon as possible. I know this may be hard for some. Traveling on the metro, listening to the song Jason Aldean was singing when the shooting started, working with large groups of people, or driving on the freeway next to motorcycles might bring back horrible recollections of the images, sights, and sounds that feel distressing and remind you of what happened. However, as best you can, try to return to your normal life as soon as possible. Over time, it’s like your psyche and brain need the predictability of your everyday life. And it will gradually get better.
And lastly, try and remember that your feelings are going to be all over the place. They will also feel confusing. You’ll likely feel both heartbroken and guilty. You’ll feel sad. You'll feel angry. These are NORMAL feelings/responses to an ABNORMAL event. It makes sense that you would feel sad, right? People were KILLED at this event. That is sad. It’s also heartbreaking that innocent people who were enjoying something benign like a country music concert are now no longer alive. It’s also normal that you would feel guilty. You survived. Others didn’t. That’s going to take some time to journey and process.
My last thought – don’t go this alone. Get help, reach out to those you love and need. Life will return to some normalcy eventually but for now it’s important to get the support and help you need.