Is New York's immediate return to normalcy a sign that we're desensitized? | Perspective

APTOPIX Manhattan Shooting Halloween Parade
Heavily armed police guard as revelers march during the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. New York City’s always-surreal Halloween parade marched on Tuesday evening under the shadow of real fear, hours after a truck attack killed several people in what authorities called an act of terror.

On Tuesday evening, Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan, mowed down bikers and pedestrians with a rented pickup truck in Lower Manhattan — the deadliest terrorist attack in New York since 9/11.

Hours later, packs of children dressed in costumes trick-or-treated just a few blocks away. A Shake Shack near the site of the attack bustled with customers. Less than two hours after delivering updates in a news conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined thousands of people at the annual Halloween parade in the West Village.

Is that almost immediate return to normalcy a sign that New Yorkers — and all Americans — are resilient, bouncing back quickly from traumatic events? Or have we just become numb?

Yasmine Awais, a counselor and art therapist who teaches at Drexel University, was in New York on Tuesday when the attack occurred. “Of course, memories of the September 11th attacks came flooding back,” she said by email Wednesday morning.

One focus of Awais’ work is the impact of trauma on children and adults. The Inquirer and Daily News spoke with her about how people responded to Tuesday’s attack, what it means to be resilient, and how to cope when the onslaught of traumatic news gets to be too much.

It seems that life got back to normal so quickly after Tuesday’s terror attack. Is this an example of resiliency? Or are we becoming desensitized to violence?

Resiliency is a sign of strength, different than desensitization. George Bonanno, Ph.D, a psychologist and director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University, explains resilience as “the ability to maintain a stable equilibrium.” Therefore, trick-or-treating on Halloween for the neighborhood residents is in fact a sign of resiliency.

If trick-or-treating was an example of resiliency, what, then, would it look like to be desensitized?

The definition of desensitization is “the elimination or reduction of natural or acquired reactivity,” so we must first determine what is natural or “normal.” Being desensitized is manifested physiologically. For example, if I see a truck driving where it shouldn’t, my heart is racing (not desensitized) versus my heart rate staying close to steady or no change (desensitization).

Emotional numbing is also a sign of desensitization, which is showing less emotional distress than what one would expect in a stressful situation. In using the trick-or-treating example, it doesn’t necessarily mean that if children were out having fun as previously planned they are or are not desensitized to the day’s violence.

Do you think that the collective reaction changes at all when the weapon is something less threatening like a car and not a gun or a bomb?

First, we need to remember that this attack happened very recently. We are still processing this event. People are reacting differently. Some New Yorkers are going about their lives as usual, and others may not be.

Second, it is difficult to generalize how people react based on the weapon. For example, on September 11th, 2001, that was the first time in the United States we experienced planes being used as weapons. Furthermore, we have had vehicles used as weapons in the past – World Trade Center 1993 comes to mind.

Interestingly, it can be argued that we have been desensitized by gun violence – every time a mass shooting occurs, politicians announce their “thoughts and prayers,” yet no action is made.

How can we become more resilient?

Another way to say this is “How can we be stronger?” One way is to find community. Those that were out trick-or-treating yesterday were out with their families, friends, and neighbors. Those who attended the Greenwich Village annual Halloween parade were there to celebrate and to be together.

Is there a difference in how researchers approach collective trauma and individual trauma?  Is there anything distinct about studying this in the 21st century?

Community trauma, historical or intergenerational trauma, and individual traumas are distinct. Some researchers look at these traumas separately and some are interested in how these are connected. For example, historical trauma that has occurred over multiple generations in the Native and First Nations communities or African American communities impact individuals and communities differently.

Similarly, being a witness to violence such as community violence or domestic violence is different from being a victim of a shooting or intimate partner violence.

In our current world of constant connection due to globalization and technology, secondary traumatic stress is another concern. Being bombarded with images through social media, the internet and world news, we are exposed to violence immediately and sometimes continuously.

What advice do you have for people who are trying to protect themselves from feeling overwhelmed by that constant exposure?

My brief answer is that individuals, particularly children (but this applies to adults as well) should limit their exposure [to violent content]. While it is important to be aware of current events, we should also ask ourselves how useful it is. If someone is feeling  overwhelmed by the constant exposure and it gets to the point where they cannot function as they did previously, one should seek help from a professional, qualified therapist or counselor.