The Authors

Authors of The Heart of PsychologyHoward Paul, PhD, ABPP, FAClinP Eduardo Chapunoff, MD, FACP, FACC

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The Heart of Psychology - Unraveling the Mysteries of the Mind

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Advice on Coping With Tragedy

by Dr. Howard Paul, PhD, ABPP, FAClinP

Inner StrengthOnce again, we all are stunned by what appears to be yet another random act of violence that is ended in tragedy.  Typically, the perpetrators of such violence are individuals who “just did not fit in” and who allowed their sense of being victimized to develop into a rage where they felt that others deserved punishment.  One sad result is often the loss of many innocent lives.

As a psychologist,  I want to present some ideas that might make dealing with such events a little bit more possible.

One prepares for disaster, any disaster, whether it’s shootings, earthquakes, tornadoes or even diseases such as cancer, by acquiring and constantly rehearsing a humanistic and reasonable belief system, and then working to strengthen those beliefs.  It is this rehearsal of coping that occurs before  we are tested that increases our ability to cope when faced with real trial, such as the tragic massacre of so many innocent lives that we witnessed in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday.

Just as with any performance, it is important to practice before the concert, not at it or just after it.  Such practice will not eliminate pain, but will reduce suffering when coping with tragedy or illness and facilitate our ability to survive and, in time again thrive.

Coping with tragedy entails learning and then strengthening three core beliefs.  In the real world, bad things do happen. Contrary to what we wish, we cannot always win, be first, have our way and have things be fair.  When we are children, we want things to be our way.  It takes maturity to understand that the notion that we must have our way and, by extension that tragedy cannot strike us or our loved ones, only leads to anger. And this anger in turn  can lead to depression, anxiety, and even illness.  Mourning is only accomplished when anger is resolved.

It is important not to amplify the distress that bad, even tragic events cause.  Trauma is survivable.  Trauma and life-threatening circumstances and diseases can cause havoc for the victim (if it is a disease) and for their loved ones.

Be careful not to exaggerate the challenges trauma or diseases pose, so as not to think about them as impossible (too big) to cope with. Lurking behind “too big” lies the companion belief that we are too small.  This is often hidden, but is part of this damaging “one-two punch”. When one perceives themselves as being too small to cope, it makes coping seem more impossible and makes us think that escape is the only solution.  No amount of positive thinking can make a bad thing good, however, it does not take much faulty thinking to make a bad thing worse.

One needs to realize that humans are capable of coping with difficulties far beyond one’s accepted notion.   The death of a loved one does not take away the capabilities of survivors to endure and, ultimately,  continue productive, fulfilling lives.

Perspective and attitude are so critical in determining how one manages and copes through such trying times.  It is important to personally remember and to teach our children that sorrow is not damaging and for us. It is not possible to shield our children from all sorrow, or even tragedy.  Such dire times, while painful, provide an opportunity to teach important life lessons about resiliency and inner strength.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. May you find the inner strength to carry on as you move through the grieving process.