After a Tragedy, How Do You Keep Your Head?

Photo: MariaDubova / iStock
The tragedy in Quebec City, like so many calamities, has focused international attention on violence throughout the world.

The thoughts and hearts of all of us at CPI are with the loved ones of victims and survivors, as well as emergency responders and those who witnessed this horrifying event.

As the media photograph, report, broadcast, email, tweet, and blog to a stunned international audience following this kind of event, anxiety, speculation, fear, and rumors frequently abound. Reports often point to “panic,” “chaos,” and “craziness” during and after violent incidents. Questions and theories about motive begin almost immediately as we all attempt to make sense of things that defy sense.

At these times, we encourage this worldwide audience to be cautious in making assumptions. Human behavior during and after any crisis may be much different than we might expect.

Despite common beliefs, most people are quite resilient. People seldom respond completely irrationally during any crisis. Despite headlines and eyewitness reports, the reality is that individuals experience both productive and unproductive responses during and after a crisis event.

In the immediate crisis moment, people frequently experience anxiety, fear, confusion, and disbelief. Hysteria and panic are rarely seen. A situation may be abnormal, but, in general, people’s reactions are not.

A far more common reaction is for affected individuals to first attempt to ensure their own safety and welfare. Many will then make every effort to help others. Such behavior has been well documented in high-profile emergencies worldwide.

Coping with painful emotions at times like these can be very difficult. Feelings of anxiety, apprehension, concern, fear, and worry may haunt some people. These and similar reactions are quite normal.

Dealing with distressing emotions can often be a matter of shifting perspective. We offer the following tips for anyone attempting to maintain perspective in the hours, days, weeks, and times following any crisis:
  1. Keep yourself safe physically and emotionally. It’s important to stay aware of the suggestions made by authorities. It’s equally important to keep these suggestions in perspective.
  2. Focus on the facts. Be careful about making assumptions or adding to rumors. Rumors can spread quickly and the energy of a rumor increases as it spreads. A rumor can quickly get out of control, lead to panic, and further lead to serious danger.
  3. Consult with reliable and authoritative sources. These could include your local emergency management agency (EMA) and state, regional, and federal authorities. 
  4. Make positive choices. Remember your priorities. Only you know what they are! People are their own best experts and know best what they need. It is very important to seek out any resources that you feel may be helpful to you.
  5. Maintain a support network of family, friends, and colleagues and keep in touch with them. Note the things that really matter, and take the pressure off from nonessential concerns.
  6. Focus on what you can do. You can do all of the above, but you cannot do everything.
  7. Continue routine activities. Maintain realistic expectations for yourself and others.
  8. Do something small for yourself and for someone you care about. Small things matter!
  9. Ask for professional help if you feel you need it. There are resources available to assist you. These include community social service programs, your local public health service, and resources available through your employer-sponsored employee assistance program (EAP), medical insurance, and other employee benefit plans.
We can’t escape the news of horrifying tragedies that surround us every day. But planning, training, and ongoing practice can help us with our reaction to the unthinkable.

How do you cope with tragedy? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
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About the Author

“In any kind of crisis, simple and clear guidelines for directing our decisions and actions work best.”