Dealing with the aftermath

Two days ago, the city that has been home for me in the past 5 years, has suffered a terrorist attack.  Incredulous, shocked, sad and shaken, we watched the terror unfold through twitter, news sites and texts. We spent all day reassuring family, friends and friends of family that we were allright, and that we were staying in a safe place.

As the day ended, we entered a new time, that of dealing with the aftermath. People gathered in the center of Brussels and transformed the Bourse square in a memorial, but also in a safe space to mourn together. It made me think of all the strategies that people use to cope. some I have observed, and some have origins in psychological research.

Business as usual

Today, the city is making an extra effort to show that life goes on. Differently from the lockdown earlier this year, schools and offices are open and people encouraged to go to work. This may have the unintended effect of forcing people to take the public transportation that they may be too afraid to use otherwise, and reinforce the feeling of normalcy of travel.

Being together

In the center of Brussels, Bourse square is one giant memorial. Messages of peace in all languages, flowers and candles cover the ground and the buildings. Being in the center, it is a multicultural spot shared by all faiths and backgrounds, far from the upper-middle-class expat European quarter. The space sends the message to all, that it is OK to come here to mourn and to be together, for everyone.

Slowing down and finding a common wavelength

For those of us not direct victims of the attacks, there may be some value in slowing down in our reaction, acknowledging our feelings and listening to others in an empathetic way.

One quick glance at social media shows the extent to which fear and shock bring out violent, racist and xenophobic attitudes. It takes some conscious effort to understand the way many of us react out of fear, and perhaps express views that are inspired by this and not their values.However, it may also not be the best moment to attempt reasoning with the people making shockingly insensitive or violent statements. I have been trying to apply some of the learnings from my coaching course to this problem.

Thoughts and experiences stimulate neural networks either through a state called positive emotional attractors (PEA) or negative emotional attractors (NEA). These two activate different parts of the body. Basically, PEA triggers constructive cognitive and physiological responses that enhance an individual’s motivation, effort, optimism, flexibility, creative thinking, resilience etc. The negative emotional attractor (NEA) triggers another process by calling attention to current social and environmental stressors that may compromise an individual’s effectiveness, but also enhance focus on single tasks. THOSE social media users are definitely in an  NEA state, through their focus on threats and anger. As they are in the grip of emotions and a flight-or-fight rush, they are not receptive conversation partners for a discussion based in appeals to our higher nature (typical of PEA).

I find this really difficult, and tend to get up in endless fights about value-laden topics with people on a very different wavelength from mine. * learning point!*

Similarly, different mental settings often make it difficult to deal with negative emotions, even when we are feeling the same way about something. In our case, I have experienced a few instances where someone was upset and in need of empathy and reassurance, maybe just a hug. What some others do at times is instead attempt reassuring through a logical reasoning, such as “just remember that statistically you are still a hundred times more likely to be hit by falling furniture than by a terrorist attack”. True, but SO unhelpful! Also, yet another thing that I did just yesterday in a conversation with my mother.

Empathetic, attentive listening can help us avoid these two discrepancies. And I will definitely try to do it better, not only in dealing with the fallout from these attacks.

Talking to victims

The Belgian College of Psychology has also published some guidelines resonating with this impression, based on insights from clinical research. These can be very useful to keep in mind as many of us will meet acquaintances who were in the airport or the metro when the bombs went off.

Firstly, they have recommended for those who have been directly affected by the attacks to try avoiding re-living of the events. For those who are interacting with victims, this means avoiding asking for a detailed description of what happened. This recommendation comes from research that showed that trauma victims who were debriefed by a psychologist (basically, talking through their experience) after traumatic events, were more likely to develop PTSD in the aftermath than those who were not debriefed. Looks like reducing the retelling of the event allows more space for the mind to heal. It might be difficult or appear insensitive to not ask people about their experience, so I think I may stick to telling them to talk about it if they feel like it.

The second recommendation gives some tips for reacting to someone telling us about their experience with the attacks. Others can help the victims process their narrative of the event by supporting an interpretation of agency and empowerment in the situation. In this case, this should help the trauma victim interpret their experience as somewhere where they took action to preserve their lives and maybe help others. Therefore, to be a helpful conversation partner, one should focus on asking questions such as “What did you do to get out of it despite all?”This is definitely a good strategy for the times when you cannot avoid talking to people about their experience.

It also looks like not everyone should go to therapy as soon as possible after the attacks. The BCP recommend official psychological intervention if the victims still have difficulties in dealing with the event a few months afterwards. Apparently our minds have the kickass super power to haul themselves back from shocks?

Thinking about what matters

I have to say, I felt extremely shallow for thinking about my capsule wardrobe and decluttering on the morning of the attacks. Of course I could not have known, but events like this make it clear that just as there is more to life than mindless consumerism,  there is also more to life than a concentrated tweaking of my own little environment.

In the coming months, our lives will likely have many more conversations about the importance of freedom and tolerance in our societies, and what it takes to make a society a real community. One of the Dutch words for society is “samenleving”, or “living together”, which really captures the effing difficult task that is ahead of us.




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