As a country, we have seen so much tragedy and violence in recent months. Many of you may have read that there have been approximately 74 incidents of gun violence in schools (K-12 through University/College) since Sandy Hook less than 2 years ago! Not to mention the countless incidents of violence that happen in our communities daily. These numbers are appalling and horrifying. And they’re so much more than numbers! These incidents involve many people’s lives, safety and future. If you are a survivor of interpersonal violence, gun violence, abuse, sexual assault, combat, etc, these events carry yet another lay of meaning for you. Traumas tend to build on one another in layers and when one layer is triggered all of them are triggered. If you have not survived violence, you are still exposed to it through repetitive news casts, videos through social media, and print articles. This is its own kind of traumatic experience since we fear for others’ safety, feel saddened, mourn for their families and worry about whether we or our loved ones are safe.
We’re shocked, we worry, we care, we’re horrified, we feel afraid. All of these responses, and many others, make sense and personal experiences play a huge role in how we respond. So, what do we do? How can we cope?
Here are some things you can do to decrease your anxiety and increase your ability to function when you’re triggered by violence. These ideas don’t solve social issues, but they will help you cope!
1. Turn off the television, unplug from social media and internet news sources
Depending on how plugged in you are, this can be challenging. We want to know what happened, if people are hurt, who did it and why. The problem is that those answers usually take time to gather and in the meantime, news stations report the same information and video clips over and over and over as they wait for more information. Sometimes they speculate and those speculations end up being false. Limit yourself and just watch the evening news, perhaps, or read one newspaper per day – or less. Likewise, provide information to your children – talk to them in an age appropriate way about why it isn’t helpful for them to be plugged in right now or glued to the TV either.
2. Practice mindfulness
Pay attention to increased anxiety, depression, difficulties sleeping or focusing on tasks. Often bringing our attention back to the here and now can help with this. Take a deep belly breath – not one that only fills the top part of your lungs, but one that originates in your belly and then fills your lungs all the way to the top. Take 10 nice belly breaths in a row and notice how your anxiety decreases and your focus shifts to you in this very moment. That is just one way of practicing mindfulness and it’s a powerful tool. Do this multiple times per day; the more you practice, the quicker your body responds and calms.
3. Be kind to yourself
When we get triggered and our ability to manage our emotions or typical day to day situations decreases, it’s very common to begin an internal dialogue that can sound like, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just get over it?” We can also hear similar things from others who don’t understand what it’s like to be a trauma survivor. These thoughts, beliefs and judgements are not helpful nor are they truthful. When these kinds of judgements, internal or external, come up, remember that you feel how you feel for a reason. Identify the reason and take action. In the meantime, practice kind, loving self-talk: “I got triggered. That’s why I feel so anxious. All I need to do right now is breathe. I can get through this.” Take a few minutes for yourself, or more if you can. Take a hot bath, listen to some music that you love, read, draw, play with your pets. Do things that help you focus on the present moment and that help calm you.
4. Be of service
Sometimes when we see pain and tragedy in other’s lives it can feel like there is so much wrong with the world. So, be part of the solution. Take action in big or small ways and be of service. Volunteer, do something kind for friends or family, make a financial contribution to a cause that’s important to you, write letters to your leaders in government. When you feel powerless remember that feelings are not facts. You have the power to bring about change – even if it’s only to improve one person’s life today.
5. Get support
If you find yourself overwhelmed, anxious or depressed and having a difficult time managing life, get support. If you find yourself drinking or using other substances to numb your feelings now is the time to ask for help. The same is true if you see your loved ones struggling. Asking for help can be difficult and not all cultures, families, communities see asking for help as a strength. However, getting support from a friend or a professional can make a huge difference in how you feel and how you’re able to function in your relationships and at work. The truth is that traumatic experiences can have a lasting impact in how we feel and function, but it is also possible to heal and feel better than you do now. Your experiences will always be part of your story, but they don’t have to dominate your daily life. You can heal and feel better!