Mental Health Depressed man

Published on December 26th, 2012 | by Healthy Gay Lifestyles


Coping With Tragic Events

by Paul Novello

In the aftermath of recent critical incidents such as Hurricane Sandy, and the massacre that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT, I felt it was important to provide some information on coping with tragic events.

When the unthinkable happens it is normal to have strong reactions. Of course, these reactions will vary depending upon how someone was personally impacted by the situation. There is no right or wrong way to feel or respond.

Critical Incidents May Include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Death of a loved one: friend, family member, co-worker, etc.
  • Serious accidents or injuries
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Violent attacks
  • Robberies
  • Fires

When tragedies happen, people naturally try to gain control of the situation. They may deny their emotional reactions to maintain distance and “hold it all together.” Frequently, people try to keep the event from having any effect on their lives at all. While denial can help people cope in the short-term, remaining in the denial phase for too long can have negative consequences on a person’s overall health and well-being. People experience reactions on multiple levels: Emotional, Physical, Cognitive, and Behavioral.

Common Reactions Include:

Emotional – Anxiety, Fear, Numbness, Uncertainty, Anger, Guilt, Grief, Disbelief, Depression

Physical – Fatigue, Twitching, Nausea, Headaches/body aches, Sleep Disruption, Sweating, Dizziness, Digestive Problems, Breathing Problems.

Cognitive – Confusion, Forgetfulness, Distraction, Flashbacks, Poor Judgement, Poor Concentration, Nightmares, Suspiciousness, Shock/Denial

Behavioral – Isolation, Increased Alcohol Use, Increased Drug Use, Restlessness, Being Jumpy or Edgy, Relationship Problems, Appetite Changes, Decreased Sex Drive, Decreased Productivity

How to take care of yourself:

Generally, these reactions are temporary, and should pass within a few weeks. While they are a normal, expected response to a crisis, here are some things you can do to reduce their impact and restore normal feelings and functioning more quickly:

  • Remember all these reactions are normal. What you are experiencing is an expected, temporary response to a traumatic event. Be patient with yourself and recognize that healing takes time.
  • One of the most effective treatments for dealing with personal trauma is talking – to friends, loved ones, ministers or sometimes a counselor. Discussing the event repeatedly is a common, normal and helpful activity for many people who have undergone personal crises.
  • If talking isn’t possible, try writing out your thoughts and feelings. You might want to write to someone who is special, or to pretend you are writing to that person. You might want to write out your feelings to yourself. What is written needn’t be sent or shared with anyone else; just putting words to feelings is often helpful in clarifying emotions and reducing your stress.
  • Moderate physical exercise (walking, stretching, etc.), alternated with periods of relaxation, may be helpful, but consider seeing your doctor before starting any new exercise program to determine the frequency and type of exercise that is appropriate for you.
  • Drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, should be avoided. Instead, substitute other stress- reducing activities. While drugs may temporarily ease the symptoms of stress, they also mask emotions and feelings, sometimes slowing normal recovery.
  • If reactions to the crisis are excessive, short-term use of medication, prescribed by a physician specifically for you, may be helpful and appropriate. Consult with your doctor about this.
  • Limit the amount of time you watch the news. The 24/7 news cycle constantly pumps tragic events into our homes, and more importantly into our minds. If it gets to be too much, turn off the television or change the channel.
  • Be productive and make necessary decisions, but don’t make major life changes until you are sure the crisis has passed.
  • Concentrate on what you can control in your life, and let go of those things you have no control over.
  • Use your support system – your friends, family, pets, religion, hobbies, sports, etc. Most people want to help but do not always know how. Tell people what you need and want, as well as what you don’t.
  • Pamper yourself. Get plenty of rest. Eat regular meals even if you don’t feel like it. Be as self-nurturing as you can-plan enjoyable and relaxing activities into your schedule.
  • Spend time with others. Don’t isolate if it makes you feel uncomfortable, or if it is hampering the progress of your recovery.

Be patient with yourself as you go through the healing process. Recurring thoughts, flashbacks, restlessness, etc., will eventually fade away. Give yourself permission to recover at your own pace. Remember that you are having normal reactions to an abnormal, stressful event. Be as loving to yourself as you would be to someone you truly love. If your reactions persist for some time, seek professional help to aid you in your recovery.


Paul Novello, LCSW is a licensed Therapist and Life Coach who has been practicing in New York City and Long Island for over fifteen years.

Paul has always been passionate about personal growth and development, and he loves to explore the possibilities! He enjoys inspiring others to discover their true selves, reach for their goals and dreams and live the life they truly desire. Paul created and developed Life Solutions for Gay Men as a resource to support gay men in the achievement of their personal success. Additionally, Paul has an extensive background in the performing arts and has studied and applied various techniques throughout the years including Meditation, Progressive Relaxation, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) and the Alexander Technique.

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