Christchurch mass shooting terror attack: What you might be feeling and why

Today, I wanted to talk about how some reactions we might be feeling in the next few days as a result of the Christchurch terror attack can feel quite overwhelming and complicated. I wanted to talk about how this can be really uncomfortable, but quite common after large-scale events like this. I’ve recorded this in this video below, but you can read on too.

Let me start with outlining some of the reactions people might be experiencing now or in the near future. If you’re not experiencing these, don’t worry - I’m just describing the sorts of things that the research says that people have reported.

In general, the short-term reactions include experiences like shock, disbelief, numbness, disorientation and uncertainty about what the future will bring.

Struggling with identity

In particular, what I am noticing is an emerging struggle with a sense of loss and grief over our identity - who we think we are as New Zealanders - as well as the very real loss of our brothers and sisters.

When we go through events as big and potentially traumatic as this, it ripples through the community, especially in a country as small as New Zealand. The further we are from the centre of the event, the less of an impact it is said to have. But in our increasingly connected worlds, and in a small country like New Zealand, it isn’t surprising for quite large feelings of impact to pop up everywhere, and for those with a connection to New Zealand overseas too. We know that the risk of feelings of disturbance increases when the way we think about life and how safe we feel in how we think about the underlying fabric that keeps all of it together is disrupted. The more that we have to think about how we may, or may not be, safe and have to reassess that, the higher the risk that we will find that disturbing in how we experience out feelings, thoughts and actions. You might find yourself losing sleep, feeling angry or outraged, or numb and disbelieving.

It's also a recalibration of threat. This has emerged from a place, from a set of ideas and beliefs that we have been less conditioned to expect to see causing harm. So the sense of alarm and anxiety is potentially greater as it was to some extent unforeseen by the wider population. So the potential for the reaction is larger when it is an event that requires processing and resetting like this. It's not like a natural disaster - which is very bad but to a certain extent we understand the probability and likelihood even if we can’t predict its precise timing. In this case, it may feel for most people like it was completely out of left field. In that sense, this may feel very different and require a very different response.

In sum, when our sense that our basic assumptions about the world as a safe, stable and largely predictable place is undermined, we can expect to see reactions to that.

Let’s get back to how you might be feeling now, or in the next few days. You might find that although you don't feel much now, you may start to have feelings that are unfamiliar or more intense over the coming days and weeks. Or you get angry or other large emotional reactions about apparently trivial things. Provided they don’t persist for weeks on end, these are all common reactions reported in large-scale events. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you see this in yourself and / or loved ones.

Collective problem solving and helping

Finally, I want to talk about one of the things that does appear to help when you look at the literature is a sense of collective problem-solving and collective helping, and keeping connected with social networks.  Recovery works best when people come together to solve problems, and draw upon each others resources and strengths in times of vulnerability and challenge. We really are better together. We know this, but we sometimes need reminding that this is an effective pathway to recovery, though it will be a long and challenging one.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’ll post again tomorrow with some more advice for parents of children and teenagers.

Thanks for reading, and go well.