Tea and Sympathy – Coping with the aftermath of tragedy

Every morning most of us wake up with an unacknowledged belief in a Just World.  If we didn’t, it would be very difficult for us to emerge from the comfort of our duvets to face the rigors of the world around us.  We are brought up to believe that if we do as we’re told and are good people then we will avoid punishment.  Only bad things happen to bad people.  It is an aspect of the human condition that we expect our world to be relatively predictable and consistent.  We turn a tap and expect water to come out, we put the kettle on and expect it to boil water.  It is irritating when these things don’t happen, but we know generally that everything else in our lives is pretty much stable.  With that expectation, we are able to get on with our day and return to bed safely at night.

Then tragedy strikes.

Out of nowhere that belief is shattered.  Something terrible has happened and it makes no sense.  Our World shifts on its axis and we have no control over it.

As I watched the footage emerging of the incident in Westminster yesterday I remembered walking around there as a commuter, recalled the buzz of tourists busy taking photos of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the bored camera crews waiting to interview the latest MP to hit the news, the gradual shift from Beat Bobbies to armed police on patrol.  My stomach lurched, the ground shifted beneath my feet, and I felt frozen but fizzy all at the same time.  Only last week I had been in Westminster and I was planning a London trip with my eldest for the Easter holidays.  I could see the faces of people I know who work in the area, and felt the panic rising as the reality of the situation unfolded.  I marvelled at the strength of people rushing in to help, to rescue, to save.  I saw the terror on peoples’ faces shift to confusion and blank bewilderment.  We move from “What is happening?” to “How has this happened?”. 

After the initial shock, there was fury and rage at the perpetrators and what people assumed they represented.  Others were saddened by the loss of life and the suffering of innocents.  Others were fearful and vigilant, waiting to see if there were going to be further attacks.  Others were filled with compassion and a longing to do something to help.

All of these reactions are normal in the face of something that has rocked our world. 

When faced with terror or threat we flip from “getting on with life as normal”, to a range of reactions known as “Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop or Friendship”.  All of these reactions are designed to help us to survive.  They are programmed into the very basic part of our Brain that forms in the womb.  When our Brain sense we are under threat it sends an alarm signal to that bit of our Brain responsible for survival and shuts down the other bits responsible for things such as creativity, problem solving and language development.  In an emergency, we don’t need to know how to compose a song or recite poetry, we need to survive.  Which reaction our Brain triggers is dependent on the situation we are in and what we have learnt from previous experiences.  For example, if I have learnt that I am more likely to survive by running away then that is the most likely reaction my brain will choose the next time I am in a threatening situation. 

For some people their brains flip back out of survival mode quickly and into problem-solving mode, as demonstrated by MP Tobias Ellwood, and the wonderful men and women of the emergency services and armed forces, who jumped into action in the immediate aftermath.  For others, it can take their brains longer to adjust.  We have all seen images of people wandering around after an incident, dazed and confused, maybe sitting with their head in the hands or holding on to someone else looking equally as dazed.  Again, these are all normal reactions to very abnormal situations.

At some stage though, we all have to return to life as normal.  But, after experiencing something as shocking and terrifying as that, normal life will not be the same as it was when we woke up that morning.

Us Brits mock ourselves for responding to the impact of tragedy by putting the kettle on and having a lovely cup of tea.  Well, do you know what?  We have got something right with that.

No, I’m not about to say that the caffeine and tannins in tea are some super trauma cure, I’m not a biochemist so I wouldn’t have a clue. 

Having a cup of tea is normal, it’s comforting, it gives us something to do, it helps us to stop and take a breath.  Neurologically it is brilliant.  In order to make a cup of tea we must switch our Brain out of survival mode and into thinking and doing mode.  We have to make decisions, how much water do I need to boil?  How many cups do I need?  What type of tea do I need?  Do I need sugar and milk?  Where are the sugar and milk?  Will I have a biscuit with this?  Will I stand or sit to drink this?  Etc.  It becomes a Mindful experience, how does this tea taste, smell, look?

The Thinking and Doing part of our Brain is the bit that helps us to process what we have just been through.  To help us to make sense of it, to help us to move the sensations, thoughts, feelings and movements associated with that incident from immediate memory to long term memory.  If we can achieve that, then we have successfully filed the incident away as Solved!

It is when we aren’t able to move those things into long term memory that we have problems.  They get stuck in the immediate term part of our memory, so whenever our Brain receives information that is similar to the incident it reacts as though we are back in that situation again.  We are immediately thrown into survival mode and the Thinking and Doing part of the Brain switches off again.  We react to the information with our survival tactics rather than with our “getting on with life as normal” tactics.  For example, someone involved in a car accident may panic every time they hear the sound of tyres screeching, they may freeze or run in the opposite direction, even though there is no evidence of a threat to them in that instance.  They are reacting as though they are back in the past trauma, not in the present day.

Thankfully, clever people like Pat Ogden and Dan Siegel from the SensoriMotor Psychotherapy Institute, have studied this and worked with many hundreds of people to help them recover from unresolved traumas.  There are a now a range of psychological therapies that are shown to be effective in helping people to recover and integrate the impact of the trauma so that they can get on with life as normal again.  For more information please visit www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org or to access help contact louise@oakingtons.com

In the meantime, never underestimate the value of a lovely cup of tea.

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