Resiliency Following the Colorado 2012 Shooting and James Holmes (with his apparent Prescription Pill Abuse)
John L. Schinnerer, Ph.D.
I wrote an article following the 2007 slaughter at Virginia Tech on how to make sense of senseless tragedies. Unfortunately, it appears time to share these ideas again. This time it follows the horrific shooting at a Colorado movie theater during the new Batman: The Dark Knight Rises movie in July 2012.
James Holmes was on a large dose of prescription pain killers during his rampage.
The main question is how do we best respond to such unnecessary suffering and frightening tragedy?
While my work is in positive psychology, teaching clients to work towards greater happiness and contentment, there are many times during which I must teach others to address rage, grief and anxiety.
We are all pressed by the vicissitudes of life to confront humbling, depressing, horrifying incidents during our lifetimes. As we learn to become more resilient, we can bounce back from tragedy and restart in a positive direction. To learn greater resiliency, to begin to experience post-traumatic GROWTH, you need a greater awareness of the emotions that are likely to arise in the aftermath of the the Colorado massacre. The human response to such unbelievable suffering is primarily emotional. We struggle to make rational sense of such insanity. Yet there are frequently no rational explanations. Many human acts simply defy reason, defy explanation. So we are left with intense, lingering emotional responses such as indignance, rage, sorrow, confusion, and fear.
Below is a brief breakdown of the major emotions that may follow a tragedy such as the Colorado Batman shooting:
- Sadness and despair
- Destructive anger
- Constructive anger
1. Sadness and despair:
Following a tragic loss, sadness and grieving are normal responses. Both serve the purpose of lowering your energy level in order to keep you close to home where you are more likely to have the comfort of loved ones around you. Relationships buoy emotions in times of distress. Sadness acts to keep you in a safe place where you can take the time you need to recover and rebuild your internal, emotional reserves. If you were directly impacted by the Colorado murders and lost a loved one, recovery may take anywhere from 6 months to several years. With time, the feelings of sadness (which can arise suddenly and without warning) will slowly and gradually wash over you less frequently, last for shorter periods of time and become less intense.
2. Destructive anger
Senseless violence often leads to feelings of anger anger at the killer, anger at society, anger at God for allowing it to happen, anger at our own helplessness in the face of mindless brutality. Anger signals the fact that something or someone has come between you and a desired goal of yours. It is a call to action. The goal may be as simple as trying to get home through dense traffic or as basic as survival.
Destructive anger may be turned inward at oneself or outward at other people. Studies show that 90% of anger is turned inwards. You are most likely to bury your anger, to suppress it. This is a normal attempt to control and contain the frightening emotion of anger, yet ultimately, it is doomed to failure, for anger cannot be contained. Given enough time, given no tools to release anger, anger frequently leads people to go volcanic – explode in anger.
It is better to become aware of your anger in the moment, label it (“I’m getting pissed off right now” or “I’m starting to be annoyed”), and release. Instead, most people I speak with, attempt to hold anger at a distance, bottle it up, contain it. Inevitably, this approach backfires. This stuffed anger is toxic and leads to all sorts of negative health outcomes (e.g., increased likelihood of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, etc.). It also leads to displaced anger where you get angry with the wrong person, at the wrong time, and to the wrong degree, and can even lead to extreme behaviors such as hurting innocent others.
The weapons James Holmes used for his psychopathic act.
3. Constructive anger
Constructive anger is anger that is used as motivation to act in a positive manner towards an ethical end. In other words, it is using your anger to help you remove something which is keeping you from reaching a goal. Unlike destructive anger which is usually held onto, constructive anger is released in a short period of time, usually as a result of the positive action taken, such as writing a letter to the editor of the local paper or starting a non-profit organization to help survivors. Constructive anger provides you with a persistent attitude which enables you to push forward to solve a given problem.
Anger is frequently misunderstood. Anger is almost always thought to be negative and destructive, despite the fact that anger itself is merely a feeling. Anger, by itself, is instructive, not destructive. Anger can be a good thing. Anger is a step up the emotional ladder from sadness as it allows you to have the energy to act, to do something. However, for anger to be positive, you must first learn to manage your emotions. Then you have a choice as to how to respond to angers signal.
It may be early to ‘rejoice in the suffering’ but the sentiment is correct
When you are ready to get past your anger, start to think of the world as compassionate and nurturing. As such it is designed to reward compassionate, nurturing behaviors in individuals. Throughout the world, there are far more loving people who are committing acts of kindness than there are angry people committing foul deeds. The human mind is naturally inclined to overfocus on the negative – negative emotions, thoughts, self-definitions and actions by other people. This is the heart of media and news organizations.
Counterbalance this negativity bias with constant reminders of the good around you – positive emotions, supportive thoughts, good people, and kind deeds. The firm belief that humankind is primarily good, that the vast majority of people in the world are well-intentioned, lies at the heart of compassion.
Compassion occurs when you feel the suffering or distress of another person. Compassion is the identification with and the understanding of another persons situation, feelings, and motives. It stems from an understanding that we are all interconnected, that our survival is dependent upon our peaceful coexistence. Compassion, the ability to walk in the other persons shoes, is the antidote to anger. The goal is to understand the situation from the perspective of the other person. Often this involves interpreting the situation with a large degree of grace, understanding and forgiveness. It is an act that few of us have been trained to do.
Our lack of emotional management skills is, in my opinion, the greatest failing of our society. A heightened awareness of the power of emotional management may be the highest good that can arise out of the Colorado Batman shooting. Research has shown that better emotional management is related to longer lives, improved job performance, better grades, better management skills, greater resiliency and much more. As Aristotle said, Educating the mind, without educating the heart, is not education at all.
Tragic, difficult times demand that we look inward to see a different view of ourselves, our species and of life. This new view brings meaning to that which is unfolding. When you feel trapped in circumstance, when you are overcome with anger or sadness, try, try, and then try again to assume a new perspective. Tragedy masks the opportunity for growth. The surest way out of untenable situations is to change your perspective and view the situation as a challenge to which you are meant to rise.
Challenge yourself by asking, What am I supposed to learn from this? Your answer will usually involve a human strength or value, such as compassion, interconnectedness, gratitude, resiliency, gratitude, freedom, spirituality, or family. Your answer will lead to a deeper connection with yourself, with your loved ones and with humanity.
Learn to manage your ‘Wild Thing’, the emotional mind, with constant reminders of the good around you
The challenge is to find meaning in the senselessness. Many times, a simple awareness of the lesson or value is all that is necessary to free you from the binds of sadness and anger. If not, the new connection with your core values will fuel your courage to help you find new ways to persevere, survive and eventually thrive. This meaning may be as simple as
“I survived this, I can survive anything” or
“I am resilient” or
“I must value my loved ones more.”
August Wilson once said, Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength. Tragic situations remind you of your strength, for you are more resilient than you ever realized. You always have the choice to focus your attention on the positive, such as compassion and forgiveness. Do not give into your fear. Be courageous. Overcome your fears. Look your fear in the eye and move forward in spite of it, for that is the very definition of courage. Do not believe that we humans are, at heart, evil. Choose to believe in the good in humanity.
The Roman poet Horace put it well, Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant. Find your talents. Find your strengths. Use them to help others. Persevere.
About the Author
John Schinnerer, Ph.D. is in private practice teaching men the latest ways to turn down the volume on painful emotions such as anger, anxiety and stress. He also helps individuals discover successful, more meaningful lives via the latest in positive psychology. He has consulted with and presented to cutting-edge companies such as Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, RAMS, and Pixar. Johns offices are in Danville, California 94526. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in educational psychology. He has been an executive, speaker, entrepreneur and coach for over 14 years. John is Founder of Guide To Self, a company that coaches men to happiness and success using the latest in positive psychology. He hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a daily prime time radio show, in the SF Bay Area. His areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to anger management. He wrote the award-winning, Guide To Self: The Beginners Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought. His blog, Shrunken Mind, was recently recognized as one of the top 3 in positive psychology on the web (http://drjohnblog.guidetoself.com ). His new video blog teaches people concrete steps for anger management (http://drjohnsblog.wordpress.com). His latest project is an eMagazine entitled, Happier, aimed at teaching positive psychology tools to laypeople. It is expected out in September of 2012.