When a senseless tragedy happens, such as the explosions that killed three people and maimed more than 170 at the Boston Marathon on Monday, it can have a psychological impact on people both near and far. And it can be hard to know what to do to help, especially when watching endless media coverage of such events.
"When something as horrific as this occurs, everyone has a stress reaction," says Alan Manevitz, MD, a clinical psychiatrist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City who was also a first responder on 9/11. "That's a normal reaction."
Here are some expert tips for how to cope with distressing world events:
Focus on the heroes
"This devastating thing makes us question humanity but we also see people come together and help and put their lives on their line," says Catherine Mogil, PsyD, director of the child and family trauma psychiatry service at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine. "There have been many heroes and acts of heroism in Boston in the days since the attacks. That could be the hundreds of Bostonians who opened their homes to out-of-town visitors, the man who served food to people huddled on the street or the runner who shredded his shirt to make a bandage. "Focus on the helpers," says Mogil. The theme echoes a viral video watched and shared by thousands on Facebook and Twitter in which Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, talks about coping with tragedy.
Take positive action
Do something positive yourself. A child could write a get-well card and send it to one of the hospitals treating victims in Boston or you could light a candle at your local church, says Dr. Manevitz. Even if you're far away from the actual scene, you can help by contributing to organizations that are helping victims or by donating blood (although the American Red Cross says that they have enough blood donations in the Boston area at the moment). If you're a runner, going for a run–as so many commenters vowed to do on the Runner's World site–might help. Two Virginia college students launched a Run for Boston Facebook page, in which people can run and log their miles to commemorate the victims in the attack.
Turn off the TV
News outlets are covering the deadly blasts 24/7 but that doesn't mean you have to keep up with all of them. In fact, trying to keep abreast of developments will only stress you out more, says Mogil, "The best guidance is to really turn [the news] off," she says. If you do find yourself watching or listening to news reports, "be aware that it is affecting you," she adds. Instead of the news, spend time with friends and family. "Spending time with others reinforces emotional and social bonds that help us feel safe and secure," says Dr. Manevitz.
Communicate and connect with others
That said, don't disconnect from the event entirely. If reaching out via Facebook, Twitter, or other social media outlet makes you feel better, do so. Sharing your emotions, memories, or support may help. In general, talking about a tragedy honestly with friends and families can help process intense emotions, says Mogil. This holds true when you're talking to children as well. Don't shield your kids from the truth but let them take the lead in asking questions, advises Dr. Manevitz. At the same time, reassure them by letting them know that events such as these are rare and you will do everything possible to keep them safe.
Maintain your routine
It's normal to feel uneasy and fearful after an attack like this but that makes it all the more important to keep up your usual routines of self care, says Dr. Manevitz. That means making sure you're drinking enough water, eating well, not abusing alcohol, exercising, and getting enough sleep. "You need to reestablish your routine. Don't change what you're doing," he says. "Life carries on. We can't stop living."
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