Coping with the marathon bombing: expect fear, anxiety, and anger, psychologists say

Anger, frustration, a sense of helplessness, depression, overwhelming fear. Mental health experts say those in Boston should expect to feel a range of those emotions over the next few days as they try to process the horrors of Monday’s marathon bombing. The extent to which they’re negatively affected depends on how close they were to the events—whether they witnessed them firsthand or had a loved one who was injured—and their brain’s individual coping skills.

“I was a block away, rounding the corner on Newbury Street by Trader Joe’s, when the first bomb went off,” said Wynn Schwartz, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. He could smell the gunpowder and gave water to three children who congregated outside his office while searching for their mother who was running in the race.

“I’m still pretty upset by it,” he said.

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There’s often no way to predict how a person will cope with a traumatic event like a terrorist attack, but Schwartz said it’s always helpful to have people to share feelings with, whether a close friend, loved one, or professional counselor.

Those who were injured in the attack or have a loved one who was injured may take weeks or months to work through painful feelings triggered by the attack.

“When you’re actually right there when the bomb goes off, it’s hard to see...well I’ll be able to go back to a crowded event. You’re always going to have that fear that something could go wrong,” said marathon runner Nicholas Yanni who was treated at Tufts University Medical Center for an injured ear drum. He spoke at a hospital press conference about his injuries and about his wife, also a runner who suffered a leg fracture in the blast.

Those who experienced the bombings firsthand might feel a little numb or disoriented over the first few days because they’re in a state of shock. “They may have a hard time coming to a sense of what really happened,” said Dr. Paul Summergrad, chair of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center. “They need to reach out to family members and should not assume there’s anything pathological going on.”

Loved ones can provide emotional support and make sure the affected person is eating and sleeping, but they should not pressure anyone to talk about the events until that person is ready, Schwartz advised. People may take time to develop the mental skills they need to adequately cope with the frightening circumstances. “It’s a horribly difficult thing to process an event that most of us haven’t encountered before in our lifetimes,” he said.

For the vast majority of folks in Boston who weren’t in the vicinity of the bombings or have loved ones who were, the emotional impact—as acute as it might be a day or two afterward—is likely to be short-lived. Parents of young children should discuss what emotions they’re experiencing, but also show their kids that they’re able to cope and manage the situation.

“What a child needs is to see that the world is still a safe place to navigate,” Schwartz said.

Getting back to a normal daily routine is key for helping kids deal with the events, but that may be a challenge with kids on school vacation this week. “Teachers can often be reassuring during times like this,” said Dr. Stuart Goldman, a child psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital, so parents may need to step into that role of explaining the attack and putting it into perspective.

“Young kids may be more clingy, not wanting to separate,” Goldman said. “If a young child has a few days or week of anxious behaviors—like wetting the bed or not wanting to stay at a friend’s house—that’s normal.” Behavior that extends beyond a week or two should be discussed with a pediatrician.

He also urged parents not to put off field trips this week to crowded parks or museums because of safety concerns—even though it’s normal to feel a sense of anxiety.

“I bought tickets yesterday to take my 4-year-old grandson to the Big Apple circus, but I paused before I bought them worrying that it might not be safe,” Goldman said. He cheered on yesterday’s marathon runners with his daughter and grandson as they passed through Newton, where he lives.

Parents also shouldn’t be too concerned if kids are play-acting bombing attacks or running away from terrorists, but if they continue the same scenarios for several days, parents may want to redirect them to other activities.

In terms of watching the 24/7 news coverage, kids under age 12 should be kept away from it, while teens should be encouraged not to spend too many hours in front of the graphic images flashing on their screens since it could exacerbate fears and anxiety, Goldman said.

“Make sure to have some quality time with family this week—like a family dinner where everyone has a chance to talk about what happened,” Goldman added. Bedtime talks about the bombings should be avoided to prevent kids from having nightmares.

Young children who have concerns about their safety can generally be reassured that adults are handling the situation, finding those who caused it, and making sure it never happens again. Older children, however, will probably want to have more nuanced conversations about why some people murder innocent bystanders to get attention or send a political message.

Sharon-based psychotherapist Karen Ruskin emphasized that it’s important for those who weren’t directly affected by the attack to put the events in perspective. “Be mindful of what you’re feeling and allow yourself to experience the sadness and fear,” she said, “but then go about your day and feel gratitude for those good things that you have in your life.”