By Giulia Petroni
The shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, demonstrate that the emotional impact of a tragedy leads people to question the existing security measures and demand for some reinforcements. The expanded use of metal detectors, lock-down policies and surveillance cameras, however, also challenge people’s freedom.
Are individuals willing to trade liberty for security? How much freedom are they willing to sacrifice? Do restrictive measures really make people feel safer?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll, director at the Chicago Center for Integration and Healing’s Groups, a center providing integrated psychotherapy on a wide range of mental-health issues, with a specialty in the treatment of anxiety and trauma, discussed a psychological perspectives with Medill Reports. Here is the conversation:
Medill Reports: How would you define trauma?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll: An event can be defined traumatic when it threatens our protective system and overwhelms our capacity to cope. Trauma encompasses not only events like abuse, rape, violence or loss, but also accidents, natural disasters, and shootings. Events of this kind result in physical and psychological injuries. When individuals feel the inability to defend themselves, the entire psycho-biological system is impacted.
Medill Reports: How can a shooting represent a trauma, even for people who were not directly harmed?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll: Trauma is not so much what happens in an external event. In psychological terms, our brain responds to a threat not only when this is directly present in our personal space, but also if it’s in the surrounding environment, as for example on the news. News of a shooting, reproducing visual images over and over again, and people constantly talking about what they read or watch on television can make us feel overwhelmed. That can happen to everybody. Certainly, effects also depend on a person’s history. Those who have a history of trauma are considered more vulnerable, and therefore much more likely to be affected.
Medill Reports: What are the short-term and long-term effects of trauma?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll: In general, individuals experience two different reactions: one in the immediate aftermath of the event and the other after a prolonged exposure to the event. When events like a mass shooting occur, human beings’ first response is generally social engagement-they reach out to others and try to make themselves feel better. If that doesn’t work, they engage in a “fight-or-flight” response, where a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances: once danger is assessed, the brain begins a response to overcome it. The only problem is that sometimes one cannot escape the threat, and the brain is wired to initiate a freeze or immobility response. So, if there’s a sense that the first response is not successful, the system collapses and individuals get numb. Ultimately, this is what happens in the long-term: repeated images, repeated stories, constant coverage can have the effect of overwhelming people’s systems and produce what we call “hypo-arousal.”
Medill Reports: Would you explain what that means?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll: It is a trauma response. So it can look like people are not sympathetic, but what happens is that they’re actually having a trauma response to the event. They are less reactive and almost feel desensitized because their system has been overwhelmed, not because they don’t care. Too much exposure can make people less able to respond.
Medill Reports: Do you think that people would give up on certain freedoms to feel more secure?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll: I think it depends on people being educated about what makes them feel more secure. Research shows that individuals who are exposed to metal detectors or other restrictive safety measures have higher rates of cortisol, which means their system is having a trauma response. Perhaps there’s a belief that restrictions make people feel more secure, but there’s evidence that they actually feel less secure. Visual shows of force can trigger people’s central nervous systems and lead to a trauma state.
Medill Reports: Do people feel like invasive security measure could also undermine their right to privacy?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll: In the era of Internet and social media our standards of privacy are quite different. In general, people are hesitant to have their rights restricted. It’s a boundary violation; it is itself a threat. Again, when people feel more exposed, they also feel less safe.
Medill Reports: What happens in the case institutions establish more restrictive measures?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll: There would be an increased lack of safety, a diminished sense of safety. The way our body and system respond to a threat is not under our control. If you test people’s cortisol levels, or scan the level of activation in their amygdala, that would reveal that their system feels under threat. Individuals’ thoughts and reactions demonstrate that more guns or more safety measures would not increase their perception of security. Those things scare them because they indirectly represent a warning.
Medill Reports: Do you have patients who manifested these feelings?
Amy Zajakowski Uhll: Yes, absolutely. It’s not like they say ‘I am not gonna go to this place because I feel unsafe after a shooting. I don’t hear much of that. However, individuals develop the perception that the world is unsafe and this makes them feel anxious all the time. It’s not a conscious thought.