5 ways to cope with violence, disasters and tragedies

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5 ways to cope with violence, disasters and tragedies

By Anastasia Pollock, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Oct. 7, 2015 at 8:31 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — When I open my news feed in the morning, I often notice that there are many things to be concerned, worried and scared about.

So many disturbing stories pop up. Last week was no exception with the shooting in Oregon. This most recent tragedy is just one of many that impact our lives long after the event is over. For many, reading about and seeing these heartbreaking events in the news causes anxiety that impacts how we function in our everyday lives.

However, there are effective steps we can take to acknowledge the catastrophes that occur while also keeping ourselves emotionally and physically safe.

Continue to live your life

After something frightening happens in the world, especially in our own country, people sometimes become hyperaware, scared and paranoid about their own safety. For example, after 9/11, many people were afraid to fly, and understandably so. Even now, 14 years later, we have not forgotten and some are still anxious when they think about flying. These events stick with us and can impact our quality of life.

The best thing you can do after a tragedy is to acknowledge and validate your fears and concerns and then continue to live your life. We should not ignore the fact that the world is not always safe. It is true, that anything can happen. People do things that are sickening and very difficult to understand. We must be able to keep ourselves safe. But we must also live our lives.

We cannot shut ourselves in our homes for fear that the unthinkable may happen. We also cannot walk around being constantly fearful and at the same time experience enjoyment and life satisfaction. The two just don't go together. I am proposing that there are ways we can keep ourselves safe while also finding meaning and pleasure in life.

Keep calm

It is important to know that there is a difference between hypervigilance and healthy awareness. Often, after something alarming has occurred, people are more fearful of becoming victims themselves. Hypervigilance, which is defined as a state in which we experience an exaggerated and intense response to keep ourselves safe, can actually put us at increased risk for danger. Instead of helping us to be safer, it makes us hyper focus, causing a type of tunnel vision. This keeps us from seeing the big picture, which makes us more likely to miss actual threats in our environment.

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Healthy awareness is being fully present in the moment. This is the state that actually keeps us safe. It helps us to scan our environment for potential threats so we can take action if needed. Ideally, if we can keep ourselves calm enough to be aware and focused, we have a much greater chance of keeping ourselves safe.

Take a break

It is not uncommon for us to become highly disturbed about what we are reading in the news. Sometimes we don't realize just how anxious we are becoming as we are reading these stories, seeing them on TV or hearing about them from a friend.

My advice is this: When you notice your life and well-being is being affected (you become upset and have difficulty calming down, your mood is lower than normal, you begin having racing thoughts, your sleep is affected, or you begin to feel disconnected from loved ones and life in general), take a break. Stop reading/watching/talking about the disturbing events in the news and do something else. Go for a walk and reconnect with your world; do something that brings you pleasure.

Taking a break is not the same thing as completely ignoring what is happening in our world. The fact is, if we are overwhelmed, we are not as effective in addressing the issues at hand. Once you have been able to become more present in your own life and you are feeling calm and stable, by all means, get back to your preferred form of media. By doing some good self-care, you are much better equipped to contribute to helping those affected by the tragedies that occur in our world.

Pay attention to the good in the world

If we look at the media, it can seem that the world is a really bad place, which can affect our mood, outlook and hope. Do bad things happen? Yes. Do we need to pay attention and be informed about the goings on in the world? Absolutely.

However, since we are all going to be exposed to the disturbing things that happen in our world, I think it only fair to give the same amount of attention to the uplifting stories. Doing so can bring a nice balance to your awareness and can combat many of the issues mentioned above.

When you see disturbing stories popping up on your newsfeed, hear about them from friends, or see them on the news, purposely seek out at least one story that highlights something good that is happening in the world. This can give you a more realistic view about the world. After all, not everything that happens in the world is bad.

Be aware of the signs of vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma occurs when a person becomes traumatized after learning about the traumatic events of others. Although the person did not directly experience the traumatic event, that person begins to notice trauma symptoms that impact functioning. This can include (but is not limited to) difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, racing thoughts, nightmares and intrusive thoughts about the event, problems in relationships where there were not problems previously, and difficulty managing emotion and stress. Vicarious trauma can happen to anyone, and a person does not have to know the people affected by a disaster to develop vicarious trauma.

The first step in addressing vicarious trauma is to notice you are having difficulty with the above symptoms. It is important to address these symptoms, and the earlier you can address them, the less impact they will have on your life and functioning. Seek out help from a qualified professional who can help you work through vicarious trauma.


Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC, is clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers. She specializes in treating complex trauma with EMDR. Learn more about her by visiting lifestonecenter.com or email info@lifestonecenter.com.

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