Yesterday, on a beautiful holiday afternoon, my city was rocked - literally - by tragedy when 2 bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Currently, 3 have died and the number reported injured has climbed to 176; many of these injuries are very serious, including amputations. People around the city, and beyond, are struggling to find ways to make sense of and cope with the shock, grief, and horror.
In times such as this, I think about resilience - the human capacity to recover from, adjust to, or even grow from adversity. In the past 20 years or so, increasing research attention has focused on understanding what allows some people to be resilient in the face of tragedy and violence. This research has identified several strategies that resilient people use. They may be particularly useful as we face the aftermath of this attack.
1) Take Care of Yourself
Keeping our bodies healthy by getting enough rest, eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water, and getting moderate exercise helps to reduce emotional vulnerability and therefore acts as a foundation for resilience.
2) Establish and Maintain Connections
Our relationships with other people are our biggest resource when it comes to coping wtih traumatic experiences. Giving and receiving support and acceptance helps us to feel grounded and held, regardless of what is happening around us. Accept the help and support of people who care about you. Find ways to be around other people in positive ways. Engage with others in a civic or spiritual community. This may be one reason why people find ways to gather together in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. Find solidarity.
3) Find Meaning
Connect to a sense of purpose for your life. Focus on something that feels meaningful. Turning our attention to what is meaningful instead of what is senseless helps orient us beyond the tragedy. It is also easier to sit with painful feelings if we can identify something meaningful that transcends them. News stories focusing on transcendent values such as bravery, sacrifice, and generosity help connect us to a narrative of meaning beyond terror and tragedy.
4) Work Toward a Goal
Identify small things you can accomplish today that move you a step closer toward a goal. Feeling like you're accomplishing something helps you feel competent and productive. Working toward a goal helps you feel hopeful and orients you toward a better future.
People often feel like it would be a sign of denial, or dishonor the victims of a tragedy to express humor. However, humor is a helpful coping skill, particularly in the most challenging of circumstances. Being able to find a glimmer of humor, or taking time to exposure yourself to finny media (youtube, comics, comedic movies and tv shows, comedy routines, etc.) provides a needed break from the stress and distress. Furthermore, laughing produces a chemical reaction in the body that neutralizes the negative effects of stress.
6) Learn from Experience
Think back on how you've coped with past hardships. Build on things that have been helpful, and avoid things that have not been helpful. Not all coping skills work for all people. Go with what you know works for you!
7) Remain Hopeful
Instead of engaging in "what if" thinking, and dwelling on the past, focus on the future. Look for signs of hope - indications that things can change for the better. Again, this often means looking for those positive values and strengths that shine through a tragedy: the ways people come together in solidarity and generosity, people's courage in facing danger to help others, etc. In some ways, the best qualities of humanity seem to be brought out by the worst.
8) Take Action
We often feel better when we feel like we're doing something to contribute or address the problem at hand. Many people have come forward to donate blood. Staff at all the local hospitals jumped into action, and those who were not scheduled to work got there as fast as they could. People want to DO something when there is a tragedy. Unfortunately, there is not always something that can be done right away. They don't need blood right now, but they may later in the week. However, there are plenty of ways to contribute to your community, wherever you are.
9) Keep Things in Perspective
Trying to keep a long-term perspective and look at events in the larger context of your own lfie and the world. Recognize that things can improve. Avoid blowing things out of proportion or jumping to conclusions. Recognize that sometimes the media does blow things out of proportion (for example, claiming that there were several more explosive devices, when there were only the two that went off). Wait for confirmed evidence and avoid making assumptions.
10) Limit Exposure to the Media
On that note, it is also helpful to limit how much time you spend watching, listening to or reading media coverage of a trauma. While staying informed may be important, flooding ourselves with traumatic images and thoughts is, well, traumatic. Take breaks from it.
11) Practice Stress-Management and Relaxation Techniques
Our bodies go into overdrive in stressful or traumatic situations. It's important to restore balance by regulating our stress responses. Relaxation and calming practices such as breathing, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga all help with this. Addressing the physiological signs of stress early on can prevent longer-term stress-related symptoms, such as PTSD.