Our community has recently experienced multiple tragic events, and as humans, we cannot help but be impacted by them. The loss and injury of people in our lives and the lives of those around us affect our actions, our thought processes, and our emotions.
Some of us have consciously changed our actions in response to the tragedies. We may be attending Tehillim groups, adding a chesed as a merit for others, and strengthening our Torah learning. We may have become defensive while driving, or become more protective over our children. Some of us may be spending more time alone, while others may be making concerted efforts to connect with others. Perhaps our bodies have been subconsciously affected: perhaps we are feeling muscular tension, easily startled, having trouble sleeping, or experiencing our hearts race.
In terms of our thought processes, we may be worrying about something in a repetitive way. For example, What will happen? How will I explain things to my family? What if it happens again? These thoughts can be intrusive, disturbing us when we are trying to focus on something else. They can make it difficult to carry on with normal life activities, as they seem to come from nowhere.
Perhaps you feel like your thought process is clouded, and you have difficulty concentrating. You may be feeling a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, feeling powerless in the face of struggles. On a conscious level, you may be turning to thoughts of emunah and bitachon, realizing that things happen in the world for a reason and that Hashem has a plan for each of us that is for our benefit. At the same time, however, you may go back and forth between thoughts that pull you towards despair and thoughts that push you towards strength.
Finally, there are many possible emotional reactions to a tragic experience. With a traumatic experience, there is a perceived threat to life and limb. Even if a person sees or hears about the tragic event and hasn’t experienced it themselves, s/he can still feel overwhelmed and affected by it. A person may feel fear, sadness, or numbness as a result of the experience. Some people feel empowered to help others and motivated to act; others feel that they have no energy.
At times, we’re full of tension, making it easy to become angered or irritable with ourselves and others. Other times we may feel a sense of guilt – feeling bad for going on with our life or for rejoicing at a simcha when others are suffering.
Those of us who are blessed to have children or grandchildren or teach or care for children face a unique challenge when dealing with a traumatic situation. On the one hand, we need to care for our children, and on the other, we need to make sure that we take care of ourselves. We need to be able to protect our children from the extent of our reactivity to the trauma without denying that we are having a reaction ourselves. We ultimately benefit from learning how to protect, empathize with, and answer our children’s questions on a developmentally appropriate level.
All of these reactions to tragic and traumatic situations are ways of trying to adapt to a very not-normal situation. While this may be understandable on many levels, some of our ways of adapting are healthier than others. A given coping skill can be beneficial for a little while but become negative if it lasts too long. For example, spending some time alone can be a good short-term way of collecting our thoughts and feelings, but in the long term, we need to be able to reconnect with others for our overall health. Another example is muscular tension, where our body mobilizes us in case we need to run to safety, but if it persists, it causes chronic aches and pains.
Here are some ideas for healthy coping with tragic situations:
- Reduce stress: Practice deep breathing, do activities that relax you, and add meaningful activities into your life (such as saying tehillim, chesed projects, or volunteering).
- Connect with other people: Speak to a friend, spend time with others, try to catch up with old friends, and call family members. This can be beneficial even if you aren’t speaking about the tragic incident.
- Take care of yourself: Make efforts to eat healthy foods, consider eating some comfort foods at times, exercise, and try to get enough sleep.
- Seek help from a professional if you need it. These kinds of experiences can be trying for anyone, and there are people who are trained to help people cope with their thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions to their experiences. If your reactions are making it difficult for you to live your life and function well, this might be a good choice for you.
Dr. Shoshi Lewin is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Pikesville. She provides psychotherapy to individuals across the lifespan, ages 6 to 106. She has practiced and taught many theoretical models, including a developmental approach to psychotherapy. She is a Medicare provider. Her office phone number is (773) 343-4905.