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Don’t Let Yourself Become a Victim of Your Fear

Here are five things to remember when coping with the aftermath of a crisis.

Key points

  • People need to feel a degree of control in their lives—it offers us security as well as a sense of power.
  • When a crisis arises, though, we may be surprised at how our bodies and minds respond.
  • No matter how unexpected or overwhelming our response might be, it is our own “normal response” to an “abnormal situation."

When an unexpected tragic event happens, such as the recent reckless disregard for human life and the loss of at least six lives in Waukesha during a holiday parade, it often raises fears regarding our own safety. When we hear the statistics that most humans who die at the hands of another are victims of people they personally knew, many of us may feel “safer” as we firmly believe that no one we know would turn violent in a lethal manner. Unfortunately, when we hear about vehicular homicides or random shootings, our level of fear goes up due to the absolute lack of predictability of such an act.

People need to feel some degree of control in their lives—it offers us security as well as a sense of power too. By being able to control what happens, we’re able to actively protect ourselves and our loved ones from untoward accidents or foolish actions. When we hear of random crimes or are victims of unpredictable violence or crimes, we may develop a sense of helplessness, become hypervigilant, and take as many precautions as possible to protect ourselves and our loved ones from a future assault. When we learn about, or experience, the victimization of numbers of innocent by-standing victims, it can raise a deeper level of anxiety as we may believe that there is very little we can do to protect ourselves from the world or its villains.

Normal reactions to abnormal situations

Most of us have joked about either being the right person or the wrong person to have on hand in a crisis situation. When a crisis arises, though, we may be surprised at how our bodies and minds respond. While we can’t absolutely with total certainty predict how any person handles an immediate crisis or resulting trauma from an event, what we do know is that no matter how unexpected or overwhelming a person’s response might be, it is their own “normal response” to an “abnormal situation.” Whether you experience, witness firsthand, or learn from news sources about a tragedy, as has been much too common these past few years, your own trauma response may kick into gear and motivate feelings or behaviors that you might find unexpected.

Five things to remember when coping with the aftermath of a crisis

  1. It is normal to feel fear, anxiety, grief, and trepidation after a traumatic event. And it’s also important to allow yourself to have and name these feelings. When we can put a name to what we’re feeling, it can add to our sense of control. And if you’ve got kids, allow them to have their own feelings and help them name their feelings, too.
  2. Recognize that life is filled with risks. Every day and every place in which we show up, there is an unknown risk that we face but may not even think about. It is when an event is broadcast across every media source that the tripwire of our fear gets tripped, and the adrenaline and cortisol start pumping through our bodies. We have to allow ourselves to accept that life doesn’t come without risks but that we should not allow fear to keep us from living.
  3. Acknowledge the difference between possibility and probability. In civilization today, just about anything is “possible,” but not everything is just as “probable.” When we’re hyper-focused on a single tragic event, we lose track of how many times this particular event did not occur. The instantaneous spread of video footage of tragedies unfolding rivets our attention and raises our awareness of the “possibility” of a similar tragedy happening in our midst. However, we have to remember that the reason these events get such wide coverage is due to their unusual and unlikely occurrence. Terrible things are always a possibility of modern and prehistoric life, but the high-profile events we see on endless loops on our screens are not as “probable” as the news coverage leads us to fear.
  4. Move from fear to awareness. Fear has great power to immobilize us and keep us from participating in the activities that we long to engage in. Refuse to let your fear box you in. It’s easy for many of us to think, “I’ll never go to a parade/sporting event/concert again.” But when we begin to let our fear control our behaviors and keep us from doing the things we want to do, we’ve already allowed ourselves to become victims of our fear. However, by intentionally moving from a place of fear into a place of awareness of your surroundings, you can begin to re-enter the spaces and places that you had been avoiding. Being alert to our surroundings is essential, and we’re taught early how to be alert and aware as children. We learn early that we should have a buddy system, avoid talking to strangers, and look both ways before crossing the street. Fear can immobilize and suffocate us, but awareness raises our engagement in our surroundings, and this will allow us to respond more quickly and effectively than we could if paralyzed by our fear.
  5. Recognize the places and activities in which you can exert control. And control the circumstances that you can. By taking control of these things, you are wresting away any control that the fear might have on you.

Applying the five practices to kids

  1. Let kids talk about what is going on inside them. Help them to name and make sense of their feelings. This teaches them the benefits of gaining control through the acknowledging and naming of their feelings.
  2. Don’t scare children with comments that make light of tragedies. Avoid using sarcasm about tragic or violent incidents. But, also, don’t “sugarcoat” the world so that they are too trusting or remain too naïve to comprehend that there are risks and hazards in life that they need to avoid if at all possible.
  3. Reassure your children that you and other adults are doing all they can to keep kids safe. Help them understand the difference between “possible” and “probable.”
  4. When you’re in spaces that kids may be fearful about, point out the resources in place that help keep folks safe. Whether it’s law enforcement, security guards, physical barriers, leash laws, etc., let kids see how their safety is being prioritized.
  5. Help kids appreciate the ways in which they can help keep themselves and others safer. Whether it’s knowing the emergency escape route or meet-up point if there’s a home disaster like a fire or storm, having emergency phone numbers programmed into the phones, or having a routine to phone in and confirm that they are OK, these all provide kids with a sense of control and can help them feel secure. However, none of these is meant to be a substitute for good parenting and adult involvement in children’s well-being.

We are all affected by the traumatic events we see flashed across our screens—what happens “out there” can feel like it’s happening “in here” when we carry our phones in our pockets or have widescreen televisions in our bedrooms and living rooms. Life is not without risks but recognizing the difference between “possible” and “probable,” as well as transforming your fear into awareness, can help you and your family get back into life in the way that makes sense for you.