How to Cope With a Tragedy

In a world of wars, terrorist attacks, bomb threats and school/college shootings, every individual must be prepared to handle a large-scale tragedy. The initial panic, anxiety, fear and depression that touch those who are involved in tragedies like the Virginia Tech shooting can seem overwhelming. The truth is that, with time, everyone can overcome the physical and emotional effects of a tragedy.


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    Get yourself out of immediate danger if instructed to do so. Explicitly follow all directions from law enforcement officials. Barricade yourself behind a locked door rather than trying to run away. You will eventually be rescued, even in a hostage situation.
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    Don't play the hero. Police and SWAT agents are trained to defend you. By trying to help when you have little or no training, you may be making their job more difficult.
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    Let your family and friends know you're okay. If an event is an item of local or national attention, chances are they'll be in a state of panic until they know your whereabouts. A text message may work even when telephone circuits are overloaded.
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    Evaluate yourself. How are you feeling? Are you remembering to breathe? Are you hurt? Is your heart beating regularly? If you had to escape a horrible situation, you may be injured and not even realize it.
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    Avoid talking to the news media. Many people rush at this opportunity for 15 seconds of fame, but being grilled about a traumatizing situation you just experienced can cause you to feel more anxiety than necessary.
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    Seek medical assistance if you need it. If you feel you're having a panic attack or are in pain, go to the hospital. If you wait, a more serious problem could ensue.
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    Communicate with your friends. Share your thoughts about the situation. Avoid rehashing the details; instead, focus on how happy you are to be alive and well. Remind them why you are such good friends with them. Remember to stay positive. Hug frequently and don't be afraid to cry together if you are sharing a loss together.
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    Grieve. Allow yourself to go through the stages of the grieving process. You may be in shock at first. Don't put yourself in harm's way during this phase. You may also get angry. Take it out on a pillow or punching bag. Assuming you're not hiding from a crazed gunman, yell at the top of your lungs and stamp your feet. You may also weep uncontrollably. Let yourself sob and shake for a few minutes. Don't be afraid to show how you're really feeling.
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    Ask why. Question the supernatural forces. If you believe in God, ask why something like this would be permitted. If you don't, ask the sky, ask the universe, or ask yourself. It may help you begin to piece together the puzzle.
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    Write. Keep a journal for a few days or weeks. Document your loss. This is where you can describe in detail about the horrible incident. Write prose, poems, letters, or anything.
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    Take advantage of local resources. In a crisis situation, you may be provided with free counseling, advice, or even a simple shoulder and box of tissues. All these services may be at your disposal. Use them as often as you can until you feel comfortable. Talking to a stranger about a tragedy may seem strange to you, but it may be beneficial to get an objective point of view.
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    Return to your routine. If it is safe to do so, go back to work/school/home in a few hours/days (depending on the severity of the situation). Sitting around grieving and thinking is fine for a while, but eventually you'll have to get back to life as it was before tragedy struck.


  • Not all of the above steps apply in each situation.
  • Not everything mentioned will help every person cope with a tragedy, so choose what works best for you.
    • Repeatedly asking "Why?" can lead to obsessive thinking patterns. Sometimes life is random. Even if you can discern an answer, the pain of loss is not erased simply by understanding the tragic event. Time and compassion from others helps.

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Categories: Stress Anxiety and Crisis Management