I awakened Monday to the sound of the alarm on my iPhone going off at 5:45am. I reached to turn it off and immediately noticed a CNN news feed: “Deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.” My heart dropped as I read that a shooter had fired a barrage of bullets at 22,000 concertgoers from his hotel room window, leaving more than 50 people dead and over 500 wounded. I was horrified. The sheer magnitude of the attack was hard to comprehend. I mourned for those lost and the grieving families they left behind. I stayed tethered to the news as casualties climbed to 59 dead and 527 injured and as details emerged about the shooter’s profile and about the lives of the victims. I felt compelled to watch, listen, and read the updates coming out of Las Vegas, but I felt increasingly anxious with every minute. What if my son had been in that crowd? Where will it happen next? I found myself wondering if I’d ever be able to enjoy a public music performance without surging anxiety.
Three weeks earlier, I had been sitting in my office at my Connecticut home, completing the final edits on my upcoming book, when I began to get alerts on my iPhone with warnings that Hurricane Irma would rake parts of Florida with a catastrophic storm surge and destructive winds. My son — who has a health condition — was there. I knew I had to get him evacuated quickly, but the options were limited. People were leaving the state in droves. I could feel panic start to creep in as I looked online and saw the very few remaining flights out of Florida. I was finally able to get him home on the very last seat of one of the last Jet Blue flights to leave the state.
With my son home safely, there was nothing to do but wait and watch. I had purchased a condominium on Sanibel Island a few months beforehand; it was one of my life’s greatest dreams come true. I felt dread sink in as I read in the weekend edition of the New York Times that the hurricane was one of the strongest storms in American history. My son was safe, which was what mattered, but I feared the worst for my Sanibel home. I felt powerless as I stayed glued to my technology devices for several days, tracking the course of the storm. With each update, my level of anxiety, upset, and stress heightened. I fretted so much that I began to catastrophize, imagining every possible worst-case scenario. What if the roof blows off? What if the whole house floods? What if it catches on fire and emergency services can’t reach it because the roads are blocked with fallen trees?
Does this pattern seem familiar? Something terrible happens and we turn to the 24–7 news cycle. We are already caught up in a frenzy of daily activity, addicted to devices, and consuming too much media, and so when there are pending threats like natural disasters, tragedies, injustices or economic crises, it is all exacerbated. It is good to get news and to be kept up to date, particularly in times of crisis, but there is a limit. Our “always on” culture has led to a society that is riddled with stress and stress-related illness.
There is no solution to take away stress and pain entirely. We live in a world where the only real certainty is that terrible things sometimes happen. But there are ways to modify your behavior both for your own health and in order to better serve those around you. Here are a few of them:
- Take a break from the news. Turn off the television and put your phone away! Dwelling on these situations will not alter their course. This type of behavior will only lead to more angst, upset and fear. The emotional response to crisis situations is complex; acknowledge your emotions and accept them, rather than trying to control them.
- Take care of your own needs first. To take care of others, we must take care of ourselves. In times of stress, make sure you are getting adequate sleep and eating healthy foods. Take plenty of breaks throughout the day and maybe a few sort walks. Exercise, meditate, or engage in deep breathing. (I offer some simple straightforward breathing exercises in Chapter 4 of my book Beyond the Mat.)
- Get support from others. There is power in community. Sharing can help to normalize feelings and reactions to an event. Listen carefully to others and share your own feelings and experiences. Recognize that we are all vulnerable.You won’t feel so isolated or alone, and you are less likely to dwell on your problems.
- Write in a journal. It can be liberating, as the journal is for your reference and your reference alone. It does not need to conform to any literary standards, and it can be a helpful way to work through some of your feelings.
- Focus on what you can control. We often obsess about things that we can’t control, and we overlook things that we can control and that tend to make life easier. Practicing mindfulness allows us to be in the present moment, rather than focusing on past regrets or future worries. Enjoy the now.
- Have an attitude of gratitude and practice kindness. Consider writing letters of thanks to first responders. Donate food and supplies to victims. It’s human nature to come together and be kind and more appreciative of each other during disasters. This behavior supports our survival. For example, the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was a time of great solidarity for America. Wouldn’t it be great if we could come together like this even in the absence of a disaster?
Life is hard; there’s no two ways about it. But when we explore the opportunities and possibilities that come out of difficult circumstances, they become easier to accept. These challenging situations also often become a fundamental part of our personal growth. But in the midst of things, remember; be gentle with yourself. And maybe put your iphone down and turn off the TV and take a deep breath…. for just a moment.