Jane Benjamin, PhD: How to Cope when Disaster Strikes Over and Over Again? Print

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By Jane Benjamin, PhD, Licensed Psychologist and Clinical Director, The Counseling Center of Bronxville


Nov. 8, 2017:  Because so many recent tragic events have provided reminders of just how fragile life can be, the desire to hunker down with loved ones and shut out the world may be very strong. This is a way for the heart and mind to heal.

The Napa Valley fires; Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; the Las Vegas shooting; and the killing of parishioners at a church in Texas provide a backdrop of unprecedented political acrimony and despair.

The last few months have delivered non-stop heart-breaking tragedies with little or no time to pause or catch one’s breath in between. It has been a deluge of human tragedy. How does the psyche manage this onslaught, and what are the ways, in the midst of them, to take care of ourselves emotionally?

When one is faced with a tragedy, a number of things happen. First off, the mind quickly assesses whether there is a direct threat to self or loved ones. If there is a threat, then one’s entire focus narrows to how to remain safe, how to protect one’s family, how to get away from danger and how to carry on. In other words, despite how profound the trauma may be, one’s initial marching orders are clear. But when there is not a direct danger to oneself, then one is left to absorb the narrative and the images of the disaster without needing to specifically do anything. One might feel blessed and lucky. “I am safe" or “my family is safe."

But one might also be overwhelmed by the randomness of many tragedies and, thus, on edge about the safety of loved ones without any clear actions to take to ensure their safety.  

For some people, the barrage of tragedies has produced a kind of numbness or inability to absorb the pain in any way. It’s as if the emotional pores are clogged, and nothing else can penetrate. This can create guilt, and we might ask ourselves, “Why do I feel nothing about these poor people?” and negative self-attributions such as, “I must be one cold fish or much too self-absorbed to feel so little about this tragedy.”  This sort of numbness is normal. It is the psyche’s way of protecting itself. This self-protection may manifest as feeling “nothing” or as focusing on small mundane details of one’s life such as, “what groceries do I need?” or “what  exercise class should I take?” These details fill up the mind and protect it from the emotional overwhelm that looms.

For some, there is the need to play and re-play the tragedy. Sigmund Freud coined the phrase “repetition compulsion,” and it is relevant here. When one is faced with a traumatic event, quite often the mind cannot absorb the magnitude of the event all at once--it is too big a bite. And so the mind goes over it again and again as a way of trying to take it in and metabolize it. In this era of 24-hour news and the Internet, this repetition is easy to achieve. CNN will air the same heart-breaking images over and over for all to see. Some people will indeed find themselves watching and re-watching disturbing images of the hurricane, the shooting, or political battles. It can be difficult to tear oneself away.

So what can one do with this feeling of disaster saturation? First off, it helps to figure out what kind of power or sense of agency you actually do have. Can you donate money or supplies? Can you volunteer in some way that helps victims of the tragedy? Can you support an organization (e.g., Red Cross, anti-gun groups, Doctors without Borders) that can both help in the present and perhaps help in preventing future tragedies? 

Secondly, it’s important to step away from the never-ending images via TV, Internet, and the newspaper of the tragedy itself. While initially it may feel necessary to watch the event over and over, at some point it is better to pull oneself away ... and this may not be easy. It is also important to reach for the activities that are self-soothing for you. Obviously, this varies person to person. Would it help to walk outdoors, cook your favorite food, listen to music you love, or watch a mindless movie? 

And finally, because all of these tragic events have provided reminders of just how fragile life can be, the desire to hunker down with loved ones and shut out the world may be very strong. This is a way for the heart and mind to heal ... and at times, it is essential.

Pictured here:  Dr. Jane Benjamin. 

Photo courtesy The Counseling Center