June 21, 2016

Coping with the Absurd and the Horrifying Stories in the News

The tragedy of the Orlando massacre has shaken America's soul and left many wondering why such atrocities continue to happen .  Many people who are otherwise mentally healthy report experiencing increased anxiety and fear for no particular or obvious reason.  If you are one of those folks or just someone doesn't know how to respond or cope when disaster strikes, here are some helpful tips for navigating distressed emotions in the wake of a calamity:

1) Understand that feeling stress in the aftermath of a disaster is normal. Our minds are not designed to cope with such outrageous events and we all are vulnerable to exaggerated fears and panic. Feeling temporarily out of control or being overwhelmed with sadness or anger is not unusual.

2) There is no normal or correct way to feel.  People react in a variety of ways. Some get angry. Some get depressed. Some become numb. Some people withdraw. The way a person reacts is, to a large  extent,  determined by previous life experiences and his or her particular genetic makeup and vulnerability to shock.

3) If you are experiencing symptoms such as increased anxiety or irritability or feel detached from your surroundings, or have trouble sleeping,  don't ignore the changes.  Write down what you can observe in a private journal or talk about it with a friend.  If writing or talking doesn't seem to help and your distress is really interfering with your daily life, call your doctor.

4) Although news coverage is ubiquitous, it is important to limit your exposure to the media and its coverage of such horrible events.  Watching reports can increase your discomfort while avoiding the programing can help reduce the intensity of your distress.

5)  Ask yourself what is most upsetting about any news report that causes your distress. Be specific and ask yourself if you have ever felt that way before in the past.   Many times contemporaneous issues can connect with unhealed wounds from the past and generate intensely dysphoric experiences which are exaggerated and out of proportion to the actual stimulus.  Being able to identify the antecedents can help you to factor out and focus on the present issue which can greatly reduce your sense of being overwhelmed.  

6) Take an emotional helicopter ride.  A powerful way to lessen the aftershock of tragic news is to change perspective and to get "above" it all.    For example an airline crash is a terrible occurrence but when one realizes that crashes are very rare, this change of view point can help quiet our fears and calm our anxiety.  Looking at events from a different point of view allows you to place yourself at a distance from the immediacy of the event and thus reduce its impact.   Even though gun violence is a growing and serious threat which needs to be addressed, it doesn't happen every day and most of the time most of us are safe in our environment.  Asking how a given tragedy immediately affects you personally is a good way to calm exaggerated fears.

Even though tragic events are out of our control, these simple steps can help us to cope and regain a reasonable perspective more quickly as you get  through the ordeal.  As always, if problems persist, seek professional help. 

The Rev. Michael Heath   6 20 2016

(with acknowledgement to Getty photo)

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