Coping with Tragedy and Trauma

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

How do we get through when we witness tragedy? In Christchurch, we have just witnessed a senseless and horrific mass shooting. This is unheard of in our neck of the woods, and as such many people are understandably shaken by it. Unfortunately, we are not unfamiliar with trauma, having come through, “The Canterbury Earthquakes”. Whatever kind of tragedy or trauma we face, here are a few thoughts that may help.

1) Acknowledge your feelings

When we experience traumatic events there will often be a range of emotions as we try to make sense of what seems senseless.

It can often feel surreal because what has occurred does not fit into our understanding and experience of the world. Rather than burying these feelings it is helpful to acknowledge them and show empathy. Common emotional experiences include: shock, sadness, confusion, anger, grief, and compassion for those who have suffered the most.

When a traumatic event has occurred the first common experience is one of shock. In this phase, even though a person may be asking many questions, there are no answers that will satisfy. This is the phase where we need connection and comfort from others. If you are going through this, it is important to surround yourself with caring, supportive people.

What can help is:

a) to be aware of what you are feeling

b) name what you are feeling, and

c) express what you are feeling with others.

Sharing what we are feeling, hearing what others are experiencing, and showing and receiving empathy and comfort is often very powerful.

2) Guide your mind

One of the protection mechanisms of our brain when faced with danger or potential danger, is to go into a hyper-vigilance response.

The brain wants us to be prepared for a threat or potential threat that may come. In doing this, our mind will often go to the worst-case scenario. There is a logic to this, because if we can be aware of, and prepared for, the worst case then we make ourselves safe.

The problem occurs when we dwell on those worst-case scenarios, our brain will experience it “as if” it has occurred, which just traumatises us further. An indication of this is when we hear ourselves continually say or play out in our mind, “what if”. What if this had occurred or that had occurred? This will end up winding us up rather than helping us out.

So, in these situations, it is important to guide our minds back to “what is”, and although it may help to prepare for the worst-case scenario, to focus back on the most-likely case scenario. Ask yourself, “Is thinking like this helping me or hurting me?”, or “Is this reassuring me or winding me up?” Interrupt, and put out of bounds in your mind what is not helping you, and focus on what is helpful.

As odd as this may sound, remind yourself that you survived, that you have come through it. There may be people you know who have not and it will be important to grieve their loss, but also list the names of others you know have also survived and come through it. This can help ground and reassure your mind.

3) Feed your need

When we are coming through a tragedy or have experienced a trauma we need extra care.

When we experience shock or confusion we may not even know what we need, or that we need extra care. Using Sir Mason Durie’s model of Te Whare Tapa Whā can be helpful here.

Ask yourself:

“What would be helpful for me physically?”

Eat and drink regularly and healthily. Take slow, deep, steady breaths. Rest and sleep. Exercise. Give and receive hugs, and comforting touch.

“What would be helpful for me relationally?”

Be with whanau, friends, and community groups. Share stories. Eat together. Be together. Laugh and cry together. As you are able, be practically helpful to those who have suffered the most.

“What would be helpful for me mentally-emotionally?”

Limit your time watching and hearing the news or social media about the event. Keep your mind grounded where you are. Focus on who and what you still have. Lower your expectations of yourself and others. Be gentle on yourself and others, knowing this is an extraordinary time. Get counselling.

“What would be helpful for me spiritually?”

Depending on what is meaningful to you, take time to pray. Hand the situation over to God. Allow Him to comfort you and guide you. Attend a church service. Light a candle. Reflect on the value of life, and the preciousness of every human. Spend time in nature. Take time to acknowledge and grieve what specifically has been lost. Celebrate what was good, commiserate with others about is lost, and commemorate what has occurred in a way that is meaningful to you.

Once again Christchurch, Kia Kaha, Kia Maia, Kia Manawanui!

Richard Black (MCouns, MNZAC)

Counsellor and Director

Strength to Strength


P (03) 323 9858 | M 027 200 5018

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