Post Tragedy Coping

This article was initially published after the Paris attacks. After the recent tragic events in Brussels, I felt it important to publish again. Our thoughts go out to all of the victims, their families, and the many unfortunate victims of terrorism around the world.

Natural disasters, sudden illness, a serious car accident, or acts of terrorism such as the recent horrific and tragic events in Brussels can result in nervous system arousal and a range of uncomfortable emotions. Once the initial shock subsides, emotions from anxiety to sadness to anger may be experienced. Some people become more sensitive to environmental factors such as an increased arousal response to a passing ambulance siren. We may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach pain, and nausea.

The unsettling and unpredictable feelings can also negatively affect school performance, job expectations, and strain relationships. The good news is we can take certain steps to alleviate unsettling and sometimes unpredictable intense negative feelings and related physical symptoms.

First and foremost, it is important to know that these responses are normal and a function of our physical and emotional survival systems doing their job. Another important bit of good news is that research has shown that humans are resilient and do bounce back to a more balanced state of mind and body over time. However, the best news about post trauma recovery is that we can significantly help ourselves by utilizing specific strategies.

First, focus on managing anxiety as opposed to eliminating it. Remember that anxiety is an alarm system that is very valuable as it warns us about potential dangers and threats. It becomes unhealthy when it is chronic and significant. Build your “Management Toolbox” with certain effective techniques:

Practicing relaxation breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming the nervous system and subsequently decreasing anxiety. Even though it can be difficult sometimes, getting back into our lives is very helpful in re establishing balance and managing fear. Go for a walk with a friend, watch an inspiring film, or get together for dinner with work colleagues.

Although important to acknowledge the negative realities of a tragedy, remember to also focus on compassion for victims and their families as opposed to a sole focus of anger towards the perpetrators after an incident of terrorism.
Communicate your feelings about the experience to loved ones, friends, and share these emotions openly.
Engage in healthy behaviors that promote balance and act as stress busters such as eating balanced meals, choosing anti-anxiety foods, and finding time for physical activity. Lastly, be patient with your sensitivities to stress. Sensitivity is a gift and like every beautiful gift, it requires patience and understanding.

If unhealthy negative emotions continue to be unmanageable, if you begin to feel helpless, and/or if it becomes disruptive to daily life seek guidance and assistance from a professional.