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Sniper at large: Living with anxiety

By Gina Hill

Matthew Davis walks his son to school near Montgomery County.
Matthew Davis walks his son to school near Montgomery County.

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Helping kids cope: Tips for grown-ups 

(CNN) -- A sniper who kills randomly, sparking widespread fear, is thankfully uncommon in the United States. But fear affects people regardless of the traumatic episode -- the Columbine High School shootings, Hurricane Andrew and the crash of TWA Flight 800. The anxiety of living through it can sabotage one's mental health.

Just ask Matthew Davis. The sniper struck just two miles from his home. He now thinks before every step. "The mere fact that you're going through that level of calculation to go about your daily business is a fairly strange way to live one's life," he said.

There are roughly 873,000 other residents of Montgomery County, Maryland, and those elsewhere in the Washington area, who are also living in fear. But they'll all be affected by that fear differently.

Most people shake off such stressful events even though it can take weeks, months or even years.

Survivors of trauma, however, have reported a wide range of problems such as depression, substance abuse, family stress, marital conflicts and lingering fear and anxiety that make it hard to work or go to school.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the strongest predictor of who will develop problems after trauma is if a person has a prior history of mental health problems.

Also increasing the likelihood of problems are:

  • Lack of warning about the event
  • Injury during the trauma
  • Death of a loved one
  • Exposure to the graphic scenes
  • Darkness
  • Experiencing the trauma alone
  • Torture
  • The possibility of recurrence.
  • Experts emphasize that most people feel is a normal response to an abnormal situation. And it doesn't take an extreme event like the terrorist attacks on September 11 of last year to cause distress.

    start quoteTrauma means experience that is emotionally painful, distressful, or shocking, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.end quote
    -- National Institute of Mental Health

    "Even in the course of everyday life, exposure to violence in the home or on the streets can lead to emotional harm," the APA maintains. This can be especially true for children.

    "I know my kids are just really scared and my daughter wrote me a note and left it on my pillow what she wants to be buried with," one worried resident told CNN.

    Officials are taking special precautions where children's peace of mind is concerned as well. "We are naturally concerned about the mental health as well as the physical safety," of students, said Jerry Weast, the Montgomery County schools superintendent.

    The school system put together age-appropriate suggestions about talking with children and answering their questions. School principals have also been briefed about recognizing signs of stress in their staff and how to handle it.

    What can you do as a loved one of someone feeling the pressure of living under siege? "Be a supportive, active listener," suggests the APA.

    That includes:

  • Listen patiently and nonjudgmentally.
  • Avoid offering direct advice other than encouraging him or her to find healthy ways such as exercise to cope with stress.
  • Discourage damaging ways to deal with the stress.
  • Avoid the urge to "fix" the situation.
  • Get professional help if symptoms persist or interfere with the ability to function normally.
  • Get immediate help if a loved one talks of suicide, has excessive guilt or anxiety, or starts to abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • The people living in the sniper's shadow may take comfort in knowing that they're not alone. Almost 40 percent of Americans will be exposed to a traumatic event during their lifetimes, according to the APA.

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