How the Boston Marathon bombings impact the public psychologically

Medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

TORONTO – As marathon runners crossed the finish line in Boston on Monday, two bombs blew up seconds apart at one of the world’s most storied races.

Tens of thousands of professional runners travelled from around the world and had been training for the Boston Marathon for months. As the smoke from the explosions lifted, it exposed more than 170 people injured, including three dead.

Some victims lost their limbs; the finish line on Boylston Street turned to a chaotic scene of blood and debris.

While emergency officials pick up the pieces from the tragedy, the bombings have sent shock waves around the world.

The brazen attack preyed on healthy, vibrant adults during an event where they’d feel the most alive. It affected world citizens: 2,000 Canadians were signed up for the event along with visitors from 74 other countries.

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The ripple effects have likely made their way over to runners around the globe, including Canada, said Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist.

Public may face trauma following brazen attacks

“The whole thing with trauma is this idea of having absolutely no control over what’s going to happen. That’s what makes trauma have such an impact,” he told Global News.

As investigators plug away at the many questions that remain unanswered, Amitay suggested Canadians could be hesitant, second-guessing runs they’ve signed up for. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.

“It’s visceral. Even just seeing it, if you’re a runner your mind can see itself there so you have that physiological reaction that ties in with emotion, fear, panic. It’s the idea of it could happen to me, or it could happen here. That’s what terrifies people,” Amitay said.

Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist, parenting expert and author of several books, compares the aftershock of what’s happened in Boston to witnessing a shark attack.

“It is so rare, but if you were there and got bit or saw someone who did, what’s the likelihood of you getting back in the water?” she asked.

Runners are accustomed to seeing security as an omnipresent measure at big events, but it’s always perceived as a caution, not as a real threat, Schafer, who is a marathoner herself, said.

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“Now there’s a realization that those measures are taken because of there is possibility of danger. I totally understand the mindset that everyone is worried now,” Schafer said.

Schafer is running a Toronto marathon this weekend, with her daughter who is running her first race.

It’s a matter of emotion trumping logic in moments of distress. Images of the trauma, the blood, the forlorn faces and the sense of urgency seep into our minds and override our logical thinking, Josh Klapow, a University of Alabama professor, said in U.S. reports.

Because the event is so relatable, it toys with our comforting beliefs that tragedy wouldn’t strike close to home, Amitay said.

“Whenever there’s a shooting, for example, people are always hoping it’s in a certain neighbourhood. They’re always hoping it’s a certain person, so they can say they’re not like that and it could never happen to me,” he said.

But the attack occurred during a major sporting event, striking a large representation of the western world.

“We believe bad things don’t happen to good people. (The bombings) shatter this completely on all levels. Some of the best runners in the world couldn’t even outrun something like this, so to speak,” he said.

Children need reassurance from parents, experts say

An 8-year-old boy was among those killed by the explosions. This news will hit home for kids, no matter where they are.

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Most children are taught that death happens at the end of a long life.

“When it happens to a child that young that they can relate to, that’s when it can mess them up,” Amitay said.

Kids may be scared to head to public spaces or they’ll ask their parents if they’ll be safe heading to a school track meet, for example.

Parents need to intervene and help their kids understand that what happened is a rarity and shouldn’t keep them from living their lives.

“That really is our job as parents – bad things happen but we are safe. To reinforce the rarity of it, the safe of the situation now and to emphasize what went right, that police were right there, they secured the area and our systems are working,” Schafer explained.

Children need that reassurance from their families about their environments, the experts said.

Read more: How to talk to your kids about the Boston Marathon bombings

London Marathon honours attack victims

In the meantime, marathoners in London plan to feature tributes to those killed and injured in Boston.

In this weekend’s London Marathon, runners will observe a 30-second moment of silence and they’ll don black ribbons as a sign of solidarity with the victims. Some reports even suggest that racers will be wearing Boston t-shirts.

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Moving ahead with their marathon and honouring victims of the Boston attack is an act of defiance to those who perpetrated the bombings, Amitay said.

“It’s saying ‘I’m not going to let this change who I am and what I do’ and for some, it’s giving a middle finger to anyone standing in their way,” he explained.

“It’s asserting some semblance of control over something that you felt was taken away with the explosions. These people are saying they’re taking the control back.”

Schafer said that honouring the victims of the attack is part of the healing process for anyone who’s hurting over Monday’s grisly news.

“In order for us to get over something as traumatic as this, we need to make meaning out of it, we have to show solidarity,” she said.

For some runners, that means sticking to their plans and mustering up an extra push to get them through the race. For some families, that could mean writing a letter to the victims, donating to a cause, or saying a prayer at dinnertime.


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