How to Cope and Heal In The Wake of Tragedy

How to Cope and Heal In The Wake of Tragedy

Updated August 2020

[This article was written with Dr. Jennifer Gentile, Director of Behavior Health for Amwell]

Responses to Trauma | Self-Help Options | Helping Family and Friends | Resources


Our hearts are heavy for what has happened in Orlando and our hearts go out to the victims of this terrible attack, to their families and communities. On early Sunday morning, the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL became the biggest mass shooting in U.S. history. Tragedy on this scale can be difficult for those both directly and indirectly affected. Whether you have family and loved ones affected by the tragic shooting, have a personal connection to the LGBTQ community, or have engaged through news reports brought to us by the media, there is a chance you may be dealing with a tremendous amount of stress, anxiety, emotional and physical strain.

An important part of coping is accepting and providing support when needed. To help you better understand how best to overcome a traumatic event, Dr. Jennifer Gentile talks about different ways you can help yourself, your loved ones and your community cope with the overwhelming emotions experienced during this time.

 

Responses to Traumatic Events

Everyone experiences stress differently and that may be reflected in a variety of emotions, actions, and expressions - there is no wrong or right way to react to the news of a frightening event. Responses to traumatic events may include a combination of the following: 

      • Disbelief and shock
      • Hypervigilance or fear about the future
      • An intense feeling of anger and irritability
      • Sadness and depression
      • Apathy, emotional numbness or denial
      • Nightmares and reoccurring thoughts about the event
      • Difficulty sleeping or falling asleep
      • Increased physical complaints related to headaches, stomach cramps, back pain, rapid heart rate, nausea, and fatigue

Grieving is important, and in the days following a tragic event, it is important that those who have suffered a loss be allowed to express their grief and oftentimes. Seeking assistance from a health care professional after experiencing trauma is a reasonable response and helps prevent long-lasting effects, such as:

Acute Stress Disorder
This is an anxiety disorder that is closely related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and characterized by the development of severe anxiety, an absence of emotional responsiveness, intense fear, helplessness, or horror within one month after exposure to a traumatic event. The main difference between acute stress disorder and PTSD is time. Many times the symptoms of an acute stress disorder will go away on its own; however, if symptoms last more than a month, then you may be dealing with PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Anyone who has been exposed to a traumatic event or vicariously experienced the trauma can develop PTSD. Many people with PTSD may re-experience the terrifying event in the form of flashbacks, memories, nightmares or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects reminiscent of the trauma. PTSD can only be diagnosed when symptoms last more than one month.

Depression
Depression is more common than most people think. It is characterized by a loss of energy, change in sleep patterns, loss of interest in activities and personal relationships, change in appetite or weight, feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, overwhelming grief and sadness, or irritability.

There is no right answer in knowing how long the grieving process with last, but if these feelings begin to interfere with your daily living, if you start to abuse alcohol or illegal drugs, or if you have thoughts of death or suicide, speaking with a professional can be helpful.  If you are having thoughts to hurt yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to your closest hospital emergency room.

 

How to Look After Your Mental Wellbeing after Tragedy Strikes

Trauma can create a loss of control and faith in your safety and is best managed with a robust support team. If you are feeling personally affected by the tragedy, below are some ways to help yourself cope with your emotions.

      • Acknowledge and share your feelings. Talk with someone about your feelings –anger, sadness, fear, confusion, and others – even though it may be difficult.
      • Take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing by staying active in your daily life i.e., healthy eating, rest, exercise, relaxation.
      • Limit your exposure to details about the tragedy. Find distractions like going to a movie, dinner, reading a good book, listening to music; or getting a massage or manicure. When the conversation about the tragedy becomes negative, walk away.
      • Join a support group. Other people can encourage, guide, and comfort you. They can also offer practical advice and information, and help you feel less alone.
      • Be aware of disorders. Stressful events can lead to significant emotional distress, as mentioned above. Be aware of the warning signs and get help from your doctor or mental health professional.
      • Don’t try to find reason for violence. A lot of tragic attacks do not make sense. Trying to rationalize tragedies often leads to incorrect and emotionally-charged accusations that may do more harm than good.
      • Don’t make any major life changes following the trauma. Try to keep your life as structured and consistent as possible. As humans, we find comfort and safety in a stable environment and routine. This is especially true when dealing with children who have experienced trauma.
      • Don’t judge your emotions or compare yourself to others. Everyone reacts to traumatic events differently and it may take some time for you to regain a new sense of normal. Be patient.
      • Don’t hold yourself responsible for the tragic event. It is a natural inclination to rationalize that you have full control and could have changed the course of a traumatic event but this is not the case.  
      • Don’t underestimate how strong you are.

 

How to Help Others and Your Community after Tragedy Strikes

In the case of local tragedies, it’s important to bring the community closer. Studies have shown that the community spirit experiences during and after a tragic event can serve as a functional purpose. It protects and helps rebuild quickly a sense of camaraderie and fellowship with others. Here are some ways you can foster a sense of community following a tragedy.

      • Offer support and listen. Offer support by listening to survivors and let them talk about their experiences at their own pace. Be present and listen without judgment.
      • Be on the lookout for others’ signs of stress. Listen to others and allow them to express their feelings and reactions. Children usually take longer to come out of shock than adults. Here we offer tips you can help children understand and overcome a tragedy.
      • Volunteer with a local community agency or help organize and participate in fundraising and blood drives to support relief efforts. Such activities can provide a forum for support.

It’s challenging, but finding meaning in loss can make a difference. If you are in the Orlando area, here are some avenues to convey a sense of compassion and connectedness to those affected by the tragedy.

Donate Blood

The OneBlood Center continues to ask for blood donations for the Orlando victims in the coming days. To make an appointment to give blood, click here, or call 1.888.9-DONATE.

Donate Money

You can donate to the Pulse Victims Fund here. It is administered by Equality Florida, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that has stated that “Every penny raised will be distributed directly to the victims and their families.”

Attend a Vigil

It can be comforting to be among others who are experiencing the same shock and grief as you. Vigils are being organized around the country. If you suffer from depression or anxiety, consider attending the event with a couple of friends who you can be there for each other.

 

Reach Out If You Need Support

If you think you or someone you know needs support, or just someone to talk, here are a few ways you can speak to a counselor:

    • Call the Behavioral Health phone number on the back of your insurance card.
    • Visit https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
    • Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
    • Visit psychologytoday.com
    • Talk to a therapist on Amwell. Psychologists and counselors are available for on-demand sessions, but if you prefer to schedule an appointment, you can call 877‑410‑5548. Therapists are available 7 am – 11 pm EST, 7 days per week.

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