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Coping with tragedy and tragic events

Sudden, shocking events in our lives, local communities, or another part of the world can shatter our sense of security and stability. Whether we experience them firsthand or see them in the news, tragic events can leave us feeling devastated or helpless, even as we deal with other overwhelming emotions. We can also feel scared, vulnerable, angry, or even guilty in the aftermath. Nothing seems as certain as it once did.

The reality might feel beyond our comprehension, and the pain might feel like too much to take in. This is traumatic stress, a normal reaction to an abnormal event that turns our world upside down.

At these times, it’s important to look after ourselves, even though it might feel like it’s the last thing we want to do. By taking whatever time and space we need, we start our path to healing.

We’re here to help. In this guide, we’re sharing ways to be patient, gentle, and compassionate with ourselves when we’re feeling at our lowest.

Stress - Coping with tragedy and tragic events
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Watch Meditation For Processing Tragedy - 17 min

Key takeaways:

  • It’s important to look after ourselves by taking whatever time and space we need

  • There’s a path to healing when we’re patient, gentle, and compassionate with ourselves

  • Allow emotions room to breathe with a Headspace meditation, Processing Tragedy


What happens after we experience tragedy?

Tragic events unfold mostly without warning. We can be affected by them personally or exposed to them through the experience of a friend or neighbor, or from media posts and reports. It’s hard to avoid the reality of death, pain, and tragedy, and that’s why the world can feel like a scary place. Feeling hopeless is common.

When we witness events from far away, the sense of helpelessness can bring on anger, despair, and fear. We’re often united in grief and remembrance, or it can feel like the whole world is reeling. It’s because we’re human that our hearts break at seeing the suffering of others.

When we directly experience a tragedy — personally or within our social circle — the emotions can be even more intense. But, as Headspace meditation teacher Eve Lewis points out: “Emotions are an energy that doesn’t need to consume us if we learn to nurture it in the right way.”

The challenge for anyone experiencing tragedy is that even the simplest things can feel overwhelming. First, we’re shocked by the event itself, and then we’re overcome by the flood of emotions that we don’t seem to have the space, time, or capacity to process. We might not be able to continue with our day as “normal” or as planned. We might not have the words to express what we feel or explain what’s happened to others. Submitting our work project, running a family errand, or attending a celebration like a birthday party or sports game might seem pointless, inappropriate, or impossible.

We experience traumatic stress in different ways, of course. But one common tendency is to get caught in a loop of negative thinking: replaying events, revisiting memories, going over “what-ifs,” wondering what we could have done to prevent what happened. It adds an extra layer of mental commentary to a situation that’s already difficult for the mind to manage.

So what can we do? We can’t change the way we feel, but we can approach things differently to avoid getting stuck in that loop. When we’re caught up in anxious or panicked thoughts, we can feel threatened or scared. That can cause us to lash out, retreat, or shut down. These are all normal responses, but it doesn’t have to be this way — that’s where meditation offers us a rope to hold on to.


Using meditation to help process tragic events

Meditation can help us find peace of mind even when we experience great difficulty, pain, or chaos. Once we learn how to meditate, we can quiet the mind and let go of the thoughts and emotions that can magnify our underlying grief, distress, or suffering.

Meditation can’t make our heartache go away. The intensity of our emotions will still be there. That might be one reason why some people resist sitting with the mind at such times, because, let’s face it, that’s a lot of raw emotion to deal with.

But when we meditate, we train ourselves to shift our focus away from the rush of thoughts and emotions and instead pay attention to our breath. When we can concentrate on breathing in and breathing out, we start to connect with the present moment again and maybe even feel a little less stressed. With this new distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings, we can find space to breathe, zoom out, calm ourselves, and discover a whole new perspective.

And remember, when we meditate using the Headspace app, an experienced teacher is with us the whole way, talking us through the exercise, holding space, and essentially holding our hands. We’re not alone.

With this guidance, we might find it a little easier to step away from negative thinking. Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe says it might be helpful to view ourselves as being caught in a brutal storm: we might wish we were inside and dry and that things were different, but we are where we are, feeling the full force of the storm.

He adds: “There is no intention to avoid the storm, the grieving process. Instead, we are looking to embrace that process with all our heartache, anger, sadness, and grief. It is enough that we experience this sorrow on its own, without adding more suffering by thinking repeatedly about a situation.”

Embracing the grieving process is tough. But feeling the full force of the storm is the most effective and cathartic way through it. When intense emotions and troubling thoughts pop up, here are some simple ways to cope in the moment:

  • I feel alone or lost, or don’t know where to start. Use a Headspace guided meditation, even if it’s only a two-minute breathing exercise.

  • I feel stuck or confused. Pay attention to the sensation of our hands on our lap and our feet on the floor, or focus our eyes on a specific object in front of us. This redirects our thinking.

  • I feel shocked or fearful. We can offer a kind phrase to ourselves like, “Whatever I’m feeling is here. It’s okay, and it’s valid.”

  • I feel sad or angry. We can place our hands on our heart and say, “May we all find peace even in the middle of difficulty.”

  • I feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable. Stretch the body, or stop what we’re doing and pick it back up at a different time. Give ourselves the self-care we need at that moment.

  • I feel nothing or numb. Don’t worry. This is common, especially if we’re trying to process an event. We also have to learn to be gentle and kind to ourselves.

  • I feel like I’m struggling. A sense of community is important, so reach out to someone we can trust. These mental health resources are available, too, if we’re looking for help beyond meditation and mindfulness.


How do I move on from tragedy?

When something tragic happens, it can feel like we’ll never move on or that life will never be the same again. In many ways, that’s true. How can life ever be the same if someone we love is no longer with us? Or if new rules or laws prevent us from accessing the help and support we need? Something has permanently changed, and that is really hard to accept.

We all need time, space, and perspective before we even consider moving on. When we’re looking for perspective, we can remember the blue sky. Here’s what we mean: at Headspace, we’ve often understood the mind to be like the blue sky. No matter how many dark clouds roll in, this place of peace and stillness is always there for us.

This analogy can feel inappropriate when we’re dealing with the enormity of tragic events. But the blue sky isn’t intended to be a “happy place” where the sun always shines. Instead, it represents a place where we can rise above the clouds, feel calmer, and see more clearly. From this same view, we can also begin to see what action we can take to best serve or help others when a tragedy happens far away, whether that’s in the form of protest, joining a cause, making a donation, or responding proactively.

That’s just one suggestion. Different people will find different ways to move on. Some of us will want to stay busy. Some of us will want to be quiet and alone. However we move through grief, trauma, or pain, it’s important that we honor how we’re feeling, whether that’s through meditation, therapy, support groups, or friends. Allowing ourselves to feel, talk, vent, and weep is part of the healing process.

Sometimes, merely reaching out to others, in person or by phone or text, can bring us comfort. It doesn’t have to mean talking about the tragedy. Simply being with someone familiar can be soothing. It might even involve talking about “normal” things.

We can’t rush the healing process, and it will take time, patience, and gentleness from ourselves and others. The grief courses on the Headspace app are made to help people through such a time. It’s why meditation can be such an important resource to help us manage our emotions, feel less stressed, and sleep better.


How do I help others with tragedy?

We meditate to be more considerate and compassionate. When someone we know experiences grief or suffering, our love and support can be everything. It’s not necessarily about knowing what to say or do. It’s about simply being there, holding space, listening, and responding to their needs or prompts.

If traumatic stress kicks in, people can feel paralyzed. Stepping in to do everyday things — cooking meals, running errands, making necessary calls, and organizing what needs to be organized — can be a huge help.

The power of the human connection isn’t always physical. That’s the benefit of practicing the loving-kindness meditation technique, where we visualize sending compassion to someone we know or maybe don’t know. It’s a way to contribute when we feel the helplessness of being on the sidelines in the aftermath of a tragic event somewhere far away. We can picture the victims and families and send them all our compassion.


Try Headspace meditations to help you cope

The Headspace app has hundreds of guided exercises to help you quiet the mind. Start by searching for these three meditations to help you move through tragic events. Our teachers are there to hold your hand every step of the way.

  • Processing tragedy meditation. A tragedy in the news or in our own lives can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Take a moment to care for yourself while offering compassion to others.

  • Recovering after tragedy meditation. Support the body coming back to a place of balance and harmony after a tragic event.

  • Tragedy response meditation. Some days can feel difficult in the wake of a tragedy. Take a moment to pause and give space to your feelings.


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