"Normal" Reactions to Abnormal Events. Part 1

We have a new interview ready. We discussed various normal and abnormal reactions, as well as whether there are "unaffected" individuals when someone has gone through a serious traumatic experience without any visible wounds, losses, or damages that can be clearly identified (such as physical health, the lives of loved ones, or money). We talked about the "unaffected" at Crocus and the personal experience of Olya Kostina, who attended the fateful concert of the band Piknik and came out alive and well.

30 May, 2024

Maria Dolgopolova: Hello, Olya! We are starting our broadcast today about “normal reactions” to abnormal events. I invited you to participate in this initiative because I know you as a gestalt therapist and trauma therapist. There are several questions that I would be very interested in discussing with you. I am very glad to have you here at our meeting today, so are all our listeners.

Olga Kostina: Yes, Masha, hi. I'm very glad you’ve invited me. We will be happy to talk.

Maria Dolgopolova: Listen, I have an unusual way to start the conversation with. I didn't mention it in the announcement because I didn't want to create any hype around this topic. Therefore, those interested in normal reactions to abnormal events have come, and those who are not, well, they didn’t need to. Actually, I wanted to talk to you a little about a shock trauma and the involvement of adults, or maybe not only adults, in events such as, for example, a terrorist attack. And since there are increasingly significant upheavals involving shootings, weapons, and many other things, I have had clients in recent years who were under fire or witnessed shelling in some way. Then the question arises that we also need to adapt and be aware of all these things. And since I can’t refer to my clients, I can refer to a novel I read. It is nonfiction literature, the novel is called "The Butterfly Effect." "The Butterfly Effect" by Karin Alvtegen. She is a Swedish writer. She wrote this novel, which includes several storylines. And one of the storylines is that a man walked into a bank. And terrorists entered this bank, robbed the cash register, took hostages, were handed the money from the cash register, released the hostages, and then these armed people left the bank. Formally, all the hostages remained alive; none of them died, and I think no one was seriously injured. But one storyline of the novel continues with this one person from the bank gradually going insane over the next eight months. I don't remember the finer details of the novel very well, but when I read it, I had the impression that this particular person manifested schizophrenia against the backdrop of this incident. This was not explicitly stated, but at the end of the novel, he began to receive some treatment. Certainly, not every person can manifest schizophrenia due to some stress.

But I think this is an important and interesting topic, and I believe that if a person has not had this experience, they might think that as soon as the terrible events are over, everything is over, and everything is fine afterward. But as a therapist, I believe that the main battle for a person's health after such events, for their mental health, actually only begins, and these subsequent months are really critical. Do you, as a gestalt therapist, psychologist, and trauma therapist, have the same impression?

Olga Kostina: Yes, and here's an interesting thing, I used to think... My clients mostly work on characterology, and those who have been in emergency situations, it's usually something more domestic. So, I don’t have clients who have been under fire.

I even had this idea that… About the bank, it’s very curious, so everyone came out, so to speak, unscathed, which means they didn’t suffer, essentially didn’t suffer. It seems like they didn’t suffer. Formally, no. And since I was “fortunate” to be in a terrorist attack at Crocus, I also used to think that if a person comes out without a single scratch, if a person, for example, really wasn’t hurt, but was scared, of course. That is, they didn’t wander through some tunnels, didn’t suffocate, didn’t burn, didn’t hide for a long time, even if they weren’t suffocating in some enclosed space…

Maria Dolgopolova: They didn’t end up in an intensive care, after all...

Olga Kostina: Yes, I don’t even take into account situations where a person was really badly injured or burned. It’s clear that they truly suffered. I mean situations where a person seemingly didn’t suffer physically at all, but was wandering, scared… Again, it’s hard for me to think of any scientific reference because, unfortunately, my personal impressions strongly overshadow my scientific knowledge right now. But what can I say?

Maria Dolgopolova: Maybe personal impressions are also interesting, the ones you’re willing to share?

Olga Kostina: Yes, yes. Because it seems that a victim can be considered someone who was at least, well, I don’t know, at least scratched by a bullet. And then it’s clear that something is wrong with them. Maybe it’s better to introduce a specific situation. We ran out of Crocus, let’s say, very quickly, within four minutes, because I knew well the plan of the hall and of the building, we were very lucky. And at first, for the first day, we couldn’t fully understand and assess what exactly had happened. But the abundance of these strange reactions surprised me, even as a trauma therapist. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that inside an essentially untouched, physically uninjured person who didn’t wander for half an hour and didn’t hide, such a volume of strange reactions could develop. Because in the first day, for example, I was overwhelmed by thoughts like… So, we ran out, but how did the concert go? How did the concert go? Well, during the first hour, two...

Maria Dolgopolova: Quite a curious reaction.

Olga Kostina: Yes, the first hour or two, I thought, well, okay, this will pass. When it continued into the second day, I realized that I was about to go to colleagues, specialists, to figure this out. How did the concert go without me? And why did I run away like that? Apparently, I have very high expectations of myself, so I felt like I should have bravely returned and checked how the concert went. And this idea of manifesting schizophrenia… I’m not surprised at all because it was such an egregious violation of some standard state of mind. It wasn’t even fear; it was very abnormal. Abnormal in every way, because it could be considered a delusional episode. Strangely enough, what helped me get out of this state was a conversation with the Investigative Committee, bringing me back to reality, that this was true, that it all happened. Because watching the news didn’t help at all.

Maria Dolgopolova: You mean they asked about physical details, how things happened, like that?

Olga Kostina: Yes, because we were probably among the first to approach them with our responsibility to society. And, in fact, the Investigative Committee and the investigators were very sensitive people, and, apparently, also very shocked by what had happened. Their work was very similar to the work of a trauma therapist dealing directly with trauma. What happened, how it happened, when it started. So, the unfolding of this traumatic situation. All the impressions get tangled up into a ball and tightly compressed. And this conversation, which I believe in gestalt therapy is called the "shuttle" technique when working with trauma, moving into the event and back. This conversation at least led to the disappearance of the crazy idea about how the concert went. Well, it’s a simple example of how even a prepared person, with ten years of experience as a therapist, supervision, personal therapy, and a lot of experience...

Maria Dolgopolova: Clients with trauma whom you've helped through all this.

Olga Kostina: Yes, it turns out it’s more about developmental characterology traumas rather than shock traumas. Nevertheless, I have considerable experience, much more than an ordinary person who just works and is not involved in the helping professions or any emergency services that deal with rescues. And even here, I discovered… I was… well, not sure, I didn’t think about it, not anticipating how I would behave in a terrorist attack, but I was definitely surprised that despite all this preparation, it didn’t work at all. And the strangeness of the reactions can be there.

Maria Dolgopolova: It didn’t work during the event or in the aftermath?

Olga Kostina: It didn’t work at all. It absolutely didn’t work...

Maria Dolgopolova: You can't prepare.

Olga Kostina: No. Many terrible events happen in the world, and I thought, how would I behave in this situation? It doesn’t help at all. These ideas don’t match reality in any way. And it’s truly a place where you can’t prepare at all. Neither at the moment nor afterward. And in this sense, I think it’s important not to have any special expectations of yourself but to deal with what it is. Because this is a situation where people are forcibly plunged into it from outside, and whatever happens in this situation, at a minimum, you shouldn’t blame yourself for what happened. Because explaining whether you could have behaved better or not—well, no. Absolutely not, because in such moments, time is counted in seconds. It’s very hard to understand what is happening. And later, I think it’s really necessary to get professional help. A large number of people were involved. After all, it was a huge concert hall, fully sold out, so there were almost 7000 people. And a large number of these people, at least 6000, seem to be unharmed. Well, because these 6000 people, including me, weren’t physically harmed… there wasn’t a scratch on them. Maybe even more, 6,500 people. I think these people, as well as their relatives who weren’t there and just watched the situation on the news… I think they likely don’t understand to what extent they are traumatized. And yes, there may be a lot of strange reactions, and yes, help is needed, professional help, and you need to seek it without embarrassment, without thinking it’s nonsense.

Maria Dolgopolova: What other strange reactions have you noticed or experienced? And how long did they last or are they still ongoing?

Olga Kostina: Well, they are ongoing… I find it hard to go to large places now, like big shopping centers and large supermarkets, because Crocus was a big hall. My child forced me to go to a large mall with her because she needed something specific to buy. I realized that…

Once again, I realized that our psyche is very fragile. I wanted to say a fragile creation. And indeed, reactions can last a long time. Now, everywhere I go, I check for emergency exits. I check if someone starts running and shooting from that side, where I should go and hide. And this purely physical fear...

Maria Dolgopolova: Essentially, you’re saying that the worldview is rewritten after such shock events, that we start looking at past events and the previous world from a completely different angle. A building is no longer just a place to go shopping or something, it’s now a structure that could either burn down or something else could happen.

Olga Kostina: Yes. It’s something that’s seriously endangered. Recently, I was in a theater. For the first five minutes, I kept waiting for terrorists to come. By the middle of the play, I realized no one was coming.

So, no amount of my preparation matters here because the body and, probably, the reptilian brain are traumatized—the part that usually acts in extreme situations.

Maria Dolgopolova: So, since those events, you’ve already been to the theater?

Olga Kostina: Yes, I was invited to the theater.

Maria Dolgopolova: I think only a trauma therapist would do that because usually, people avoid anything similar. And that pathologizes their psychological processes; it’s harmful. But I think only someone with psychological training could go to the theater a few weeks after the Crocus terrorist attack.

Olga Kostina: Well, almost a month later. Again, your words are making me reassess. I think, "Okay, maybe my expectations of myself are too high, and of my ability to adapt and everything else." Because it wasn’t easy, and I had to choose... I’m very afraid of getting stuck in this state. I also work as a reportage photographer. That’s why I was at that concert; I was supposed to photograph it. I was accredited as a press rep. And I’m already accredited for a concert at the end of May, and I’m terrified, thinking, "God, how am I going to go?" So, I honestly don’t know how I’ll handle experiencing a complete repetition of those events. That’s why I agreed to go to the theater. I thought I needed to go somewhere first, not as a press rep, to change some details.

Maria Dolgopolova: To rewrite the experience.

Olga Kostina: Yes, but it’s not easy. And I do have fears that this will last a long time. Of course, the intensity of the reactions has decreased compared to the first week, for example. But, unfortunately, I can report that they haven’t disappeared entirely. And since a month has passed, today is strangely enough, 40 days since the event. So, it’s a long time.

Maria Dolgopolova: Listen, I think one of the important things I wanted to convey in this interview is that it’s not just about terrorist attacks but about any traumatic events and our bizarre reactions to them. One thing that can make people’s conditions worse is if they get scared by the duration of their reactions. They start asking, "Will this ever go away?" "Will it always be like this?" These questions hit the heart and only intensify all these symptoms. And in this sense, one thing we can do to help ourselves is, as you already mentioned, not to blame ourselves. And I think the second fundamental thing is to give ourselves time for strange reactions if we’ve really been through some complex, difficult, and negative experience.

Olga Kostina: Yes, I think so. And traditionally in therapy, almost in any approach, it’s considered that after some traumatic events—this can be deaths in the family, severe illnesses, terrorist attacks, accidents—a year is the normal period of rehabilitation. It’s considered that after a year, when all the important dates have passed... In a year, we have a number of important dates. When this passes, in the second round, that is, in the second year, we can say that yes, it can be different.

I have clients who complain after a traumatic event. "It’s been a month already, and I’m still..." I say, "Where are you rushing? It takes a year, slowly." In my experience, indeed, after a year, people report, "You were right; a year passed, and it really got easier." I don’t have clients who said, "No, even after a year, we’re still stuck." A year later, it does get easier. But I always tell them earlier, "No, guys, it’s really too soon."

About me

Maria Dolgopolova – a certified clinical and a jungian psychologist (Moscow Association of Analytical Psychology, an IAAP training candidate studying in CGJung Institute in Zurich) with a background in gestalt therapy (Moscow Institute of Gestalt and Psychodrama, Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles) and in psychoanalysis of object relations.


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