Over the past week, the world watched in disbelief and horror as our nation’s Capitol, the symbol of democracy was attacked and desecrated. The historical event has left many feeling vulnerable and keenly aware of the fragility of our government to protect its people. These feelings are not unique as we have seen in past terrorist attacks like 9-11, mass shootings, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
Emotional responses of witnessing and experiencing disasters, mass violence, and traumatic events can vary from person to person. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Common reactions include disbelief and shock, feelings of fear, anxiety guilt, anger, hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, and disruptions in the ability to tend to daily tasks and responsibilities.
There are ways to manage the unsettled feelings and reduce the risk of psychological difficulties that may arise. First and foremost, take stock of your media consumption. While it is natural to want to understand what happened, how this could happen, and what one can do, the availability of 24-7 news and social media increases exposure to unnecessary images, rumors, and unhelpful posts It is important to try to get information from reliable sources but avoid overexposure to the news and media. Take a break from watching and listening to the news and/or scrolling social media.
Acknowledge your feelings. Take stock, gauge what you are experiencing and try to label the emotions. Rather than getting pulled into your feelings or trying to distract/avoid the feelings, experience and acknowledge them.
Practice deep breathing and mindfulness. Learning to slow down your breathing, paying attention to slowly exhalating. Research shows that this can slow down the sympathetic nervous system’s activation which is responsible for the “fight, flight or flee” response. Mindfulness allows you to redirect your focus on a neutral anchor rather than getting pulled into the images, the “what ifs,” and unhelpful ruminations and emotions.
Tend to your physical well-being. The reason this tip comes up over and over again is that it is very important. Feeling physically well will help you to think clearer and handle daily hassles, life events, as well as unexpected, unpleasant ones more effectively. This includes eating balanced meals, staying hydrated and physically active, and getting good enough sleep.
Stay connected to friends and family. Chances are your friends and family are just as unsettled and disturbed by the events as you are. Stay connected to your friends and family. But rather than participating in co-rumination, where both parties rehash these events in unhelpful ways, try to find more positive things to focus on. Take stock of what is present, real, and good in your lives.
Avoid using drugs, alcohol, or substances. Although substances may provide short term relief/distraction, they replace healthier coping options and are more likely to lead to additional problems.
Finally, if you continue to experience distressing feelings and behaviors; and are unable to attend to everyday responsibilities because of them, you should seek professional help.
About the Author
Kathariya Mokrue, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at York College of the City University of New York. Her research include understanding barriers and improving mental health service utilization among racial and ethnic minorities. She is also a licensed clinical psychologist in New York, with more than 20 years of experience, specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy and mindfulness-informed approaches. Dr. Mokrue treats adolescents and adults who have anxiety, depression and work-school-life balance and relationship difficulties. A professional member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), she sits on the ADAA Public Education Committee.