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A sign, flag and flowers are seen outside a home honoring victims who died in the December 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut December 19, 2012. (Reuters)
A sign, flag and flowers are seen outside a home honoring victims who died in the December 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut December 19, 2012. (Reuters)

I’m still haunted by the Sandy Hook shootings. What do I do? Add to ...

The question: It's been weeks since the Sandy Hook shootings. I was most worried about how to handle the feelings and reaction of my own seven-year-old son to the event. But now that he's had the holidays to distract himself from all the adult talk, I realize that I'm more traumatized than I thought. I find myself crying when I happen upon more details of what happened. I worry about my son's safety whenever he's not in my sights. And many of the parents I know still can't help but talk about it. What can I do to feel better?

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The answer: The Sandy Hook shootings have had such a profound impact on so many people – kids and adults alike – and your reaction is not an uncommon one. When we are faced with the tragic or the unthinkable, the emotional reaction can often be a delayed one. Our body and our brain often go into autopilot after a tragedy, focusing on doing what we need to do to ensure the safety of ourselves and our loved ones. A side effect is often an initial emotional numbness, then a delayed intense reaction.

This is particularly true for parents. For many of them, hearing of the tragedy prompted an instinctive, biologically ingrained drive to protect their children; being around them, spending more time with them, attuning to their emotional reactions and soothing them became the immediate, necessary coping responses. I’ve heard many parents describe themselves as feeling utterly overwhelmed with emotions days or weeks later, once they felt their children were doing okay and had a chance to be alone.

This delayed response allows us to be emotionally removed (albeit temporarily) from what may otherwise be unhelpful emotional reactions, such as extreme distress, that would interfere with effective coping behaviours. It also allows a period of time for our brain to make sense of the otherwise nonsensical tragedy.

For many people, particularly those with children who were the same age as the innocent victims in Newtown, Conn., it is natural to feel myriad emotions for weeks or even months afterward. The magnitude of the tragedy, the innocence of the victims and the circumstances of the unthinkable happening in a place associated with safety: All are factors that contribute to an intense response. A parent’s drive to protect their child is easily one of the strongest imperatives a person can ever experience. Your emotions are signals of the empathy you feel for the parents in Newtown and the love you have for your son.

Talking through your feelings with other parents can help you. They can provide support and normalize the emotions you are experiencing. Limit the reports you read or watch about the event on TV, in newspapers or online, as repeated exposure can make you feel stuck in a helpless place of fear, anxiety or even anger.

If you find that you continue to have an intense response which interferes with your normal life routines for weeks or months on end, I would encourage you to seek out some professional assistance. Traumatic events can exacerbate or retraumatize individuals who have a history of trauma or pre-existing anxiety in their own lives.

Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail’s Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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