Dealing with the pain of witnessing violence

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Almost everyday now we are bombarded with news of violence, harm and adversity. We become witnesses of this violence, and this impacts us, too. What can narrative therapeutic writing offer for dealing with this kind of pain? One of the opportunities is presented in this article - four sets of questions/prompts for expressive and reflective writing.

Transcript of Dealing with the pain of witnessing violence

  • DEALING WITH THE PAIN OF WITNESSING VIOLENCE: SOME NARRATIVE THERAPEUTIC WRITING QUESTIONS Daria Kutuzova Social networks and all kinds of online (virtual) communities nowadays play an ever- increasing role in peoples lives. For many people these communities serve as one of the main social forums for communication, for learning new things (including global and local news), for forming and expressing ones position on a variety of subjects. The more dramatic are the events which disrupt the day-to-day lives of people, the faster the avalanche of links, raw photos, videos, interpretations, opinions, opinions on opinions etc. spreads through Facebook, Twitter and many other social media. This avalanche of information powerfully impacts peoples emotional well-being and health, and more often than not, this impact creates feelings of desperation, helplessness, guilt, anger and sense of personal failure etc., described by Kaethe Weingarten as common shock. But the conscious and deliberate use of the same social media and the mechanics of the viral spreading of information can help offset or change direction of this impact. Common shock The term common shock was introduced by Kaethe Weingarten (2003) to name the experiences of people who in their day-to-day lives become witnesses of situations of violence, destruction and harm both as eye-witnesses and by means of the mass media (and now by means of the social media, too). It is a common shock, because we receive information of this kind daily; but it is still a shock, because it shakes the foundations of our being in the world. The tragic events that we get to know about, usually disrupt the flow of life we are accustomed to and cause anxiety, fear, feelings of fragility of human existence (and sometimes of fragility of the human civilization and the world itself). A witness of a tragic event experiences, although to somewhat lesser extent and from a different point of view, the same kinds of feelings that the victims of the situation experience, including grief and loss. However, there is a widespread, albeit erroneous, opinion that the things that do not involve us physically should not impact us so much. As a result of the operation of this opinion, we may hear from others or even tell ourselves: Why are you suffering so? Nothing bad happened to you or your loved ones! One can say to oneself: this doesnt concern me, - but when one experiences something similar to those who have been harmed directly, one has to spend lots of energy on ignoring the difference between what one feels and what one should feel. Closing oneself off from the experiences related to witnessing violence, destruction and harm, a person can numb his own perceptivity towards feelings his own and other peoples. Or she can engage in more aggressive attempts at protecting herself: getting angry, frustrated,
  • and expressing this anger and frustration in rather rough forms of communication (sometimes leading to escalation of conflict and to violence). In both cases it becomes harder to stay close to this person; communication with a person in such states requires additional efforts on behalf of her interlocutors. If a person doesnt close himself off from the experiences related to witnessing violence, destruction and harm, his mood becomes dominated by the feelings of sadness and mournfulness, powerlessness, shame and guilt. This feeling of guilt may be similar to survivors guilt: I havent been harmed, but I am not a better person than those who have perished, and in many ways I might be even a worse kind of person then them; why then am I alive, and they have died such horrid deaths? One of the reasons why witnessing violence, destruction and harm traumatizes us, is because such situations make us doubt the basic and usually not quite conscious beliefs that the world is generally orderly and friendly and that there is a rational and predictable cause-effect relationship between what a person does and what response she gets from the world. These basic assumptions allow persons to act in the world. When they get destroyed or threatened, persons lose their faith in their ability to influence their own lives their personal agency diminishes, and they may become passive victims of circumstances. To prevent this from happening, it is necessary to create conditions where the person will know that he can influence the situation and limit its negative consequences both for the people who were harmed directly and for himself and other witnesses. This influence might be minimal. To understand that you can do at least something this position is radically different from there is nothing I can do. To be able to restore her belief in her ability to do at least something, a person has to find ways to express and make meaning of her experiences related to the traumatic situation. Expressing experiences and making meaning of them: impact on health and emotional well- being The impact of expressing experience and making meaning of them has been for the last few decades the main area of scientific interest of Professor James W. Pennebaker from the University of Texas, USA, and of his colleagues and students. They conducted many studies that demonstrated that mental and somatic health of persons correlates with the ability and opportunity to tell somebody about the traumatic experiences in their lives (and to be heard) (Pennebaker, 1997; Lepore & Smyth, 2002). People who had experienced a traumatic event and never told anyone about it, suffered from more frequent and more severe illnesses in comparison to those who experienced a traumatic event and had the opportunity to tell about this. Pennebaker suggested work of inhibition as an explanatory concept. Inhibition (of expression of experience) is what people, who cannot tell their stories, are engaged in, and for them it is a source of chronic stress. Perhaps the most important condition that prevents people from expressing their experiences is that some of these experiences are not socially sanctioned. Either the events that cause these experiences are considered impossible (for example, when a child that has been molested by his mothers live-in male partner comes
  • to tell her about this and hears back: You are lying, that could not have happened!), or the experiences that are caused by an event are considered not appropriate or not normal (some people, who experience acute grief because of the death of some person who was not close to them and did not know them at all, or because of the death of an animal, a tree, or because of heritage buildings being demolished, cannot talk about this, because such feelings should be experienced only in case of death of a partner, parent or child). In one of their studies, Pennebaker and his colleagues showed that the higher the level of self-disclosure of the teller (therefore, the less work of inhibition she is engaged in), the more work of inhibition is performed by the listeners. While the indexes of physiological stress of the teller decrease, the same indexes of physiological stress of the listeners increase. Listening to another person tell about their traumatic experiences is a form of witnessing violence, destruction and harm and can cause secondary traumatisation. People understand this intuitively and try to protect themselves, more or less overtly communicating that they do not want to hear about tragic events and feelings caused by these. So the witnesses of disasters, terrorist attacks and the like get stuck if they dont tell, it may be harmful for their health, if they tell, it may be harmful for relationships. Some people see therapists to tell about their experiences, to make meaning of them and to find a form of constructive action. Many people (in Russia it would be the majority) do not see therapists for various reasons: therapy is not culturally appropriate, people who consult therapists are stigmatised in society, people cannot afford therapy, and so on. However, Pennebakers research demonstrated that written self-disclosure is as effective, as oral self-disclosure. In his most famous study he found that after 4 days of writing (15 minutes a day) about something that caused strong feelings, the subjects experienced lesser levels of physiological stress, their cellular immune system gave more active response. When the long- term consequences of such interventions were studied, it was found that the subjects had lesser levels of slow stress hormones (cortisone) in their bloodstream, and the functioning of their immune systems was better. During 5.5 months after participating in the experiment, the subjects visited physicians approximately 45% less often in comparison to the frequency of visits during 2.5 months prior to the experiment. Joshua Smyth et al. conducted an experiment of the same type on two groups of people with autoimmune diseases (one group had rheumatoid arthritis and the other had asthma) and demonstrated that the severity of the symptoms and the amount of medicines consumed decrease significantly after four 15- minute sessions of expressive writing. What kind of writing is the most helpful? Pennebaker and his colleagues also have researched the structure and content of the texts written by the people who demonstrated the most significant improving of their health and emotional well-being after writing. It turned out that the persons who benefitted the most from writing: - From the first writing session to the last, used more and more expressions pointing at causal relationships: because, therefore, so, as a result etc.
  • - From the first writing session to the last, used more and more expressions related to reflection and meaning-making: I understood, I rea