How can I feel safe after national tragedies?

Answer by Anthony Charuvastra, MD

After the devastating school shooting that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, we are all living in a world that is materially the same but psychologically altered. There are still the same necessary routines: making breakfast, getting the kids to school, riding the train to work, and negotiating bedtimes. Yet we are now going through these routines with a new awareness of our own vulnerability.

Finding a way to feel safe is essential to living well and thriving. In climates of fear, life is more difficult for everyone. Children have trouble playing, adults can find it hard to be loving, and workers are distracted by their anxieties. Fear is bad for body and soul. 

Here are four steps to help you feel safe again:

Get in touch with reality. Intense fear and horror make us lose perspective, and suddenly we expect disaster at every turn. Taking a step back from our fear and trying to think about what we know (what therapists call "cognitive reframing") can help ease our fears, at least a little bit. 

For example, in spite of terrible events such as those at Newtown or Columbine, schools are actually among the safest places for children to be, and the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. One expert recommends balancing each "worried thought" with a "brave thought" to manage anxiety. As parents who hopefully have the wisdom that comes with age and experience, we can help our children find a brave thought for each fearful thought.

Find safety in numbers. Results from decades of experimental research reveal that as social creatures, the more alone we feel the more afraid we are. Reminding yourself of the people you can trust will help you feel safer in your community.

Reach out to others. Events are traumatic because they destroy our social fabric and disorder our expectations of the world. Giving to others helps strengthen the order in the world through good acts. As Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi recognized, altruism is a kind of antidote to hatred and evil. 

Learn to live with fearful events rather than in spite of them. This final recommendation to feeling safer is perhaps the hardest to achieve. As we work to understand what happened in Newtown, eventually we may be able to accept that terrible, unpredictable, and unpreventable things do occur and could happen to any of us. And despite that dreadful knowledge, we must make every effort to live our lives better, to love better, and to cherish every day we are given. There is great comfort in that.

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