It seems as if the whole nation is walking around in a state of stunned shock, following the shooting at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut that left 20 children, 6 adults, and the shooter dead. Schools across the country have been bombarded by calls from worried parents. President Obama, himself a father of two beautiful girls, had to pause his speech to wipe away tears. This event raises large and important questions for our leaders to answer. What do we, as a society do to keep ourselves safe from the disturbed among us? How can we provide more support and education to families so as to reduce child abuse and family violence that provide breeding grounds for psychopathy? Do we need to take another look at our gun control policies, or lack of them? These are longer-term questions. In the short-term, we all seek to restore a sense of safety, meaning, and predictability to our individual and family lives. With the holidays approaching, we want to be able to celebrate without being overwhelmed by guilt or sadness.
Below are some things you can do to help yourself cope with this tragedy. It is important to spend time and energy strengthening your internal resources, so you can feel safer and more competent in dealing with difficult or traumatic personal and societal events.
Realize that events of this magnitude take time to process. Even if you were not directly affected, exposure to constant media coverage can be traumatizing. Give yourself time to feel sad or introspective. These are normal reactions.
Mentally create a peaceful and relaxing setting in your mind to help you de-stress. Deliberately focus on each sense at a time. What do you see, hear, smell, and feel in this real or imaginary haven of peace?
Treat yourself and your own feelings with tenderness and compassion. Do not push feelings away. Rather find or create a comforting environment in which to feel them. This may be with a friend or family member, while taking a bath, or while listening to soothing music. Mindfulness meditation, with its dual focus on observing the breath and letting sensations come up, provides an excellent way of looking at feelings while remaining anchored in the present.
Write a narrative of how you found out about the event, the details that upset you, and your thoughts and feelings. Writing helps you to organize your reactions into a narrative that makes your reactions clearer and more understandable. “When we name it, we can tame it.”
Reach out to others who can provide support and comfort. If you need to talk about your feelings, choose a person who can listen and be with you as you struggle with anxiety. Stay away from people who minimize your feelings and tell you to “Get over it.” Research shows social support is one of the most important predictive factors in preventing post-traumatic stress disorder, following a trauma.
Remind yourself that although the world contains much suffering and cruelty, it also contains much that is good. Deliberately think about the positive and uplifting things in your own life and community.Think about the freedoms and opportunities you have that many in the world have not. Focus on the strengths and coping strategies you have developed and the people you can turn to for help if you need it.
Think about your most important personal or spiritual values, including love for family, nonviolence, compassion, integrity, hard work, and so on. How does your current life reflect these values? Make a list of your values and some concrete things you can do in the next week or month to make them an even more important part of your life. If you have a family, arrange a time to sit and talk about your family’s most important values. Make a poster, list, or vision board reflecting these and post it in an area your family regularly uses. When a family member makes a contribution or has an achievement that reflects these values, celebrate it!
Focus on the people in your life, past and present, that have provided you with protection, nurturance, or love. Bring to mind an image of yourself with that person. Focus on how you feel in that person’s presence. Then think about the gratitude you feel for what that person has given you. Find a concrete way to express that gratitude, through demonstrations of affection, a letter, a gift, or just telling them you appreciate them.
Channel your anger and outrage into constructive activities to help improve the situation. This may include sending letters of support to the victims, volunteering at local shelters, writing letters to the editors of local papers, or lobbying politicians for the needed changes on a societal level. Taking action can combat feelings of helplessness or guilt and can contribute to iincreasing safety or goodness in the world.
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Positive Psychology, Emotion Regulation, and Relationships. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, life, weight loss, or career coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples.
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