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Healthy You

Coping Following a Tragic Event

Wednesday, July 06, 2022 6:48 PM

News about tragedies in our communities can bring on shock, horror or disbelief, and, sadly, these incidents are becoming more frequent—and closer to home.

As details of an incident emerge you may experience a range of emotions. Anger at the perpetrator, confusion over the person’s motives, sadness for those who were hurt or killed, and fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time yourself someday. The unpredictable nature of these types of incidents adds to our fear and threatens our sense of safety and security.

Two people holding hands

“Our sense of safety and security are foundational to our ability to navigate the world. When the foundation gets rocked by events like this, it makes sense that people need to pause and think--what does this mean to me and how do I make sense of it?” says Lindsay Fazio, Ph.D., wellbeing coordinator and psychologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem.

In situations like this, there are things you can do to ground yourself and think more clearly.

  • Maintain your daily routine as much as possible. Be sure to eat, sleep, exercise and follow your normal daily routine as much as you can. Routines can be grounding and provide stability in uncertain times. While it may seem counterintuitive to think about taking care of yourself first, you cannot be of service to others if you are not also considering and meeting your needs.
  • Keep tabs on your emotional health. Remember that a wide range of feelings during difficult times (and long after an event has occurred) are common. Know that others are also experiencing emotional reactions and may need your time and patience to put their feelings and thoughts in order.
  • Try to gauge when you or those close to you need extra support. People often experience stress reactions when exposed (even through media) to shootings or mass violence. Changes in eating and sleeping habits, energy level and mood are important signs of mental distress. Watch for intense emotional reactions, such as anxiety or a strong need for retribution, in adults. When necessary, point individuals to licensed professional counselors who can provide needed support.
  • Turn off the news. While it’s important to stay informed, media portrayals of shootings and mass deaths have been shown to heighten anxiety. Limit your exposure and take a break from news sources.
  • Lean on friends and family. They can provide emotional support to help deal with difficult times.
  • Focus on your strengths. Maintain practices that you have found to provide emotional relief. Remind yourself of people and events which are meaningful and comforting.

It’s normal to have intense feelings after a tragic event. It’s also normal for those feelings to resurface or appear for the first time weeks or months afterward. If you find yourself struggling with anger, anxiety, sleep issues or mood or energy changes, it’s important to talk to a professional.

“When something like this happens, when it’s closer to home, it almost moves from a little “r” reality to a big “R” reality. This isn’t something I just read about in the paper, this was 10 miles down the road,” says Ian Evans, LCPC, with Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

Evans and Fazio both say professional mental health support is vital when faced with overwhelming emotions.

“If you had a broken leg, you wouldn’t just say, ’I’m going to tape it up and get through this.’ Mental health should be thought of the same way. When we have stress or struggle, you go to the experts.”

Helping children cope after a tragic event

Children may also be affected emotionally if they hear about tragic events. Young kids don’t need lengthy explanations or details. Older children and teens could benefit from deeper conversation.

“Parents should start off by asking what they’ve heard and how they feel about it. That’s a good way to figure out where your child’s at and how they’re doing,” says Dr. Julie Holland, pediatrician with NorthShore University HealthSystem.

Kids who are emotionally upset often exhibit physical symptoms.

“Kids may have trouble sleeping. They may have headaches or stomachaches. They may be more clingy or irritable. Those are all red flags that a child is emotionally affected,” says Dr. Holland.

Some kids tend to withdraw when they’re emotionally upset, Fazio says. Some become hungrier, some lose their appetite.

“When adults or parents talk to kids, it’s important to reinforce the idea that violence is not a solution. There are other ways to be proactive and help fix the problem,” Fazio says.

  • Encourage kids to write or draw their feelings. For some children, talking about their feelings might not come easily. Children might be more comfortable writing down their feelings or drawing pictures that express them. You can communicate through the work they produce.
  • Provide as much comfort as possible. Let children know that they are safe both with words and your behavior. Children look to parents and authority figures for cues on how to react to a situation. If you are upset, it is okay to show your own emotions. Make sure to process and seek support for your own feelings so that you can better provide comfort to your children. Also remind them that there are police, firefighters and other adults keeping them safe, too.
  • Maintain their daily routine and limit exposure to news and social media.
  • Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." You won’t have all the answers. Just like children, adults experience confusion and fear in the wake of a traumatic event. By saying, “I don’t know,” you are telling your children that it is okay to be confused because you are too.

If you or a loved one feel like you need emotional support, please reference this list of local and regional mental health resources.