Developing Resilience in the Wake of Tragedy

Statue in a Cemetery

People respond in different ways to traumatic events. That’s clear as you listen to the gamut of responses from news media, politicians, and friends on social media. Some are responding with heartbreak, others with anger, and yet others with complete shock and dismay.

No response one response is necessarily more “right” or “healthy.” What’s important is that we acknowledge how we feel.

Today, we wanted to highlight some of the common reactions as well as remark about some things that we can do to make ourselves more resilient when responding to traumatic events.

The Four Most Common Reactions:

  • Unwanted Thoughts – recurring images or thoughts that keep intruding into your mind
  • Nervous Reactions – feeling jumpy or jittery, being worried, feeling irritable or having waves of intense emotions
  • Physical Responses – difficulty sleeping, change in appetite, aches/pains, tight muscles or feeling tense or on edge
  • Avoidance – avoiding thoughts of events, or even people and places that remind us of the event

Increasing Resilience

Resilience is a word that describes a person’s ability to recover from difficulties, misfortune or change.  It is quite common to experience a flood of strong emotions and uncertainty about safety when events like mass shooting occur.   It does not mean that resilient people do not feel stressed or feel the pain in an event.  It simply means that the way they have learned to react, think and behave in ways that support recovery.

Learning to cope in positive ways has been shown to have positive effects in many aspects of our lives.  Here are a few things that resilient people have noted that have helped them in tough times:

  • Accept the feelings and reactions that you have.  Think of it as having an illness or a storm that you need to ride out.
  • Find some balance or “middle ground”:
  • Finding a balance between being obsessed with the news of the event and avoiding it altogether
  • Finding a balance between spending time with supportive people and spending time alone to think about the event
  • Finding a balance between taking time for self-care and staying productive

Resilience Techniques for Unwanted Thoughts

  • Journaling your thoughts and reactions-  Notice the changes as time passes.
  • Practice “thought stopping” to keep your thoughts from being completely preoccupied by disturbing events
  • Writing the incident away- Begin your journaling from the point at which first were aware that the event was occurring and complete it by writing about when you were aware that the event was over.  Use a first-person narrative to bring reality to what you experienced.

Resilience Techniques for Nervous Reactions

Here are a number a ways that can help the physiological reaction of the stress that you may be experiencing from the traumatic event:

  1. Understand the reactions you are experiencing are normal.  Many other people have intense feelings and reactions to stress.
  2. Accept the reactions that you are having will go away in time.
  3. Don’t fight your nervous reactions by saying that you shouldn’t have them – rather, work with them to help them complete their cycle.
  4. Practice relaxation techniques throughout the day-  Make time to give your body and mind a break
  5. Treat yourself to something fun and soothing.

Let time pass before worrying that things will “always be like this”

Resilience Techniques for Physical Responses

Begin with the tried and true methods that have worked in your past for soothing stress. Cook or eat a favorite meal, take a hot bath, get a massage, a manicure or a pedicure.

  • Exercise to help your body process the chemicals produced by stress
  • Get adequate and restful sleep to help your body recover
  • Make good nutritional choices to help promote health
  • Limit alcohol and other substances to numb feelings
  • Consult your medical clinician about medication during stressful times

Resilience Techniques for Avoidance

  • Avoidance is helpful in small doses initially, but it is not optimal in the long-run or if it is over-used
  • Try to get back to routines as soon as possible
  • Revisiting the site that is associated with the trauma may be best approached in small doses.  Making plans to visit it in stages with support is advisable.
  • Talk with supportive others about the incident and your reaction to returning back to the site where it happened or the event/situation you have been avoiding.