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How To Cope With Overwhelming Tragedy

Laura Silverstein, LCSW
July 16, 2016
Laura Silverstein, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
By Laura Silverstein, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Laura Silverstein is an author and certified couples therapist with over 30 years of experience.
Photo by Stocksy
July 16, 2016

We've all heard about the heartbreaking attacks perpetrated across the globe over the past few weeks and months. In the wake of so many acts of violence, it can be a struggle to hold on to your empathy. Perhaps you're among the thousands who just feel they can't take any more, can't bear to listen to another interview with a grieving parent, or stomach the gruesome images on the screen.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, it can be hard to stay in touch with compassion and hope. It becomes increasingly more difficult to remain connected and grounded as witnessing human carnage just becomes too much to handle.

Instead, we sometimes become numb. This kind of numbness is different from apathy. It is self-preservation. It is one of the extraordinary things about the human brain. In the face of trauma, our brain has the capacity to protect us from horrific events.

As we listen to the news and view images of unthinkable acts, this coping mechanism—dissociation—is both our friend and our enemy.

A few key words bring us back to an all too familiar pain: Sandy Hook, 9/11, Columbine, Boston Marathon, Virginia Tech, San Bernardino. These atrocities were committed in the United States alone. The list goes on and on.

These attacks have been not only against human life but against the human spirit. Sometimes numbness is the only thing that allows us to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Yet we also feel a sense of commitment to honor the truth of what has happened. To respect each individual life. In efforts not to become callous, we challenge ourselves to remain educated, engaged, and to stand in solidarity with the victims and their families. But this sense of obligation can lead quickly to feeling overwhelmed. Will anything we do ever make a difference? What are we supposed to do?

I don't know what the global solution is, but I do know that in between numbness and despair there is a place called hope. It's important to remember that hope is a verb, and sometimes we have to actively fight the tide to reach it.

When we find ourselves being pulled toward either numbness or despair, balance grounds us. It is how we stay connected to our true feelings, while also maintaining a healthy distance from the emotional turmoil.

Here are seven tips from the American Psychological Association to help you hold onto hope no matter what:

1. Talk about it.

Offer and receive mutual support.

2. Strive for balance.

Remember the positive things in the world and the many things for which you are grateful.

3. Turn it off and take a break.

Limit the amount of news you watch, and change your focus to the ways in which you are currently safe.

4. Honor your feelings.

It is normal to feel a full range of feelings in the aftermath of a tragedy, including sadness, anger, guilt, hatred, and fear.

5. Take care of yourself.

Self-care is more important now than ever. Eating a healthy, balanced diet; maintaining physical activity; and getting plenty of vitamin N (saying NO to things that will add to your stress).

6. Help others or do something productive.

A good way to counter feelings of helplessness is to find a way to productively contribute to a cause that has meaning to you.

7. If you have recently lost friends or family in these or other tragedies, remember that grief is a long process.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, including seeking help from a licensed mental health professional.

There are exponentially more people in the world working to spread love than those spreading hatred and fear. By holding on to your own individual commitment to preserve both your joy of life and compassion for suffering, you are doing your part to make a difference.

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Laura Silverstein, LCSW author page.
Laura Silverstein, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Laura Silverstein, LCSW is an author and certified couples therapist with over 30 years of experience helping couples find happiness. Click here for her free book.