Coping with Tragic Events

The entire campus community is involved when a tragedy occurs, either on campus or in the world. We can ALL play a role in helping one another to cope as well as in facilitating healing and recovery. Also review our handout on Coping with Current Events.

What Can Happen 

  • A crisis situation is one in which an individual's typical coping responses don't work or may be less effective than usual, resulting in increased anxiety, panic, and other challenges.
  • A person’s response to a crisis is very individualized. We must be careful not to judge one another's response, especially if it's different from our own.
  • The thoughts, feelings, and behaviors experienced may be in response to the event at hand as well as previous (and potentially unresolved) traumatic events from the past.
  • A sense of anxiety and panic is both typical and expected.
  • Any reactions are often an attempt to make sense of the situation, including why such a crisis or tragedy has occurred.

Common Symptoms

Emotional, Physical, and Physiological

  • Feelings of sadness, grief, moodiness
  • Feelings of numbness or detachment
  • Heightened anxiety or fear
  • Fears about death (self/others), being alone
  • Irritability, restlessness, over excitability
  • Hyper-vigilance, being "on edge", startling easily
  • Feelings of self-blame, including "survivor guilt"
  • Mood swings; sudden changes in mood or intense reactions in response to minor triggers
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Fatigue, feeling slowed down

Cognitive and Behavioral

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling confused, disoriented, and/or distracted
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Ruminating, especially about the death and dying
  • Increased crying
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep disruption, including insomnia, frequent wakening, and increased sleep
  • Restlessness, hyperactivity, or feeling more slowed down
  • Withdrawal, social isolation
  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger responses or memories

How to Help

  • Allow any reactions that arise. Normalize all the questions, fears, and uncertainties. Validate these concerns rather than argue with or otherwise dispute. Remember that in crisis situations, some people may not respond in their usual rational way.
  • Consider taking a news break.  Staying "on top" of the news may be an attempt to feel in control of an out-of-control situation, but in can result in increased anxiety. Designate 5-10 minutes in the morning and afternoon to check reliable sources for any updates. Turn off push notifications about the news on your phone. Limit your time on social media and similar apps/sites.
  • Engage in basic self-care. This includes drinking water, getting enough sleep, and eating regular meals.
  • Utilize healthy coping strategies.  Go for a walk, watch a funny YouTube video, get some exercise, listen to music, practice meditation or yoga. Also see 50 Ways to Take a Break.
  • Engage in problem-solving. Identify the main issues/immediate needs and then engage in a step-by-step process to identify possible solutions. Focus on what you can control. 
  • Provide support to one another.  People may need to simply be with each other during times of crises. Feeling connected to people close to you may be more important than saying the "right" things.
  • Take advantage of on-campus resources.  These may include peers, co-workers, advisers, administrators, mental health professionals, faith-based support, and others.

Remember that trauma and other stress responses are generally normal reactions to abnormal situations. It is important to allow yourself (and others) permission to have your reactions (whatever they may be), to take care of yourself, and to ask for help (when needed) as best as you can.