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How to Cope Amid Tragedy

Three mental health experts share guidance on how to cope with the anxiety, fear, sadness, and sense of helplessness that many of us are feeling when we witness the unfolding of tragic events.

The immense weight of a world in crisis can feel overwhelming. What can we do to feel a little less helpless during these times? Three mental health experts offer guidance for protecting our mental health, connecting with others, and discussing difficult events with children.

Episode Transcript

Hi listeners, Courtney Allison here. Bringing you a special episode of Health Matters.

With tragic events unfolding before us, many of us are feeling the immense weight of a world in crisis. So we decided to turn to a few of our experts for advice on how to cope with the anxiety, fear, sadness, and sense of helplessness that many of us are feeling. We’ll be hearing from three mental health experts across NewYork-Presbyterian, Weill Cornell Medicine, Columbia, and our Center for Youth Mental Health: Drs. Elena Lister, Shannon Bennett and Warren Ng. They share guidance to help us feel a little less helpless. They also offer advice on how we can talk to children about difficult events. 

We’ll start with Dr. Lister.

Dr. Lister: So in a world where bad things are happening and how do you understand war and how do you understand death and major weather events that kill people and so on: we all have our ways of turning away from the pain. If the pain is sadness, anger, whatever, and it needs to be expressed and felt, there are ways to help oneself do that in a way that is less overwhelming.

So, for example, we can write about it. We can draw, and this is particularly useful for children. We can play music. You know, you put on a sad song and somehow or other you’re less alone when you’re crying. You can scream. And while it doesn’t make the intense feeling go away, it does—what my 98 year old mother in law would say is—better out than in.

And also if you can name it. Look at yourself and say I am so angry about this. I am so sad. And if you can communicate it in words, that means you can be understood by other people. And if you can be understood by other people, then you have what my 98 year old mother in law also said, which is pain shared is pain halved. And that’s the other way we carry intense feeling, which is to share it with other people.

When you’re alone, it feels like the whole burden is all on you. Everything is scarier when we’re alone. It’s part of the reason why at night, feelings tend to be more intense. Or if we feel sick, we tend to feel more sick at night. And that’s because it’s a time of separation and aloneness. So connect with the people in your world, connect with other people who may be feeling this. 

There are people who are trying to help. There are ambulance drivers who are going into the midst of war zones. There are doctors who are staying up for, you know, 24, 36, 58 hours to try to help people who’ve been wounded. And so what that does is remind us that while there does feel to be a lot of bad in the world at a time like that, there’s also good. We kind of have to broaden the lens and look to the bigger picture of the good that’s going on at the same time. 

Find your way to be helpful. Small even. Maybe you don’t have a lot of resources: you can donate a dollar. You know, like, do something to help oneself feel less helpless, because it’s a helpless feeling to know that there are people in some part of the world who are dying and they’re far away and even if you don’t know anybody specific, it’s painful to hear about and to know is going on. So find some way to be helpful.


Dr. Shannon Bennett, from NewYork-Presbyterian’s Center for Youth Mental Health, has some suggestions on how to talk to kids about difficult and scary things. Finally, Dr. Warren Ng, shares ways both kids and adults can take care of themselves when overwhelmed by sadness.


Dr. Bennett: Be open to talking about hard topics with your kids and allow them to ask you questions. To be a good listener and then to ask questions back so that we really understand what their fears are, because the content of their fears may be different than the things that we’re thinking about or worried about.

It’s OK to have feelings, right? These are hard feelings to have, whether it’s grief or anxiety or uncertainty. These are not feelings that any of us, kids or adults, like to have. So we want to validate these feelings. We don’t want to say don’t worry about it.

I think labeling it. So even if parents are visibly upset, letting your kids know, I can feel upset and still be strong for you. So even if you were moved to tears by the news, which of course, many of us are letting them know it’s OK. I’m having a strong feeling right now and I can still be strong and I’m here for you as well.

So It’s helpful to just keep a dialogue open. Uh, to share information if we have it, there’s so many, so many unknowns, whether we’re talking about war or COVID or so many current events, um, we can be open about what we don’t know. And if there’s things that we don’t know, we can also let our kids know that we will try to learn more about it together, or look for answers together. Look for ways to be helpers together, either in our own community or for crises at large, whether that’s donating or signing up to help even in a small way in our own communities. So talking to kids about ways that we can be helpers can be a good thing to include in these conversations as well.


Dr. Ng: Kids look towards adults for reassurance, safety and security. We’re often put into situations where we don’t know what to do. Um, and so what do we hold on to, to try to get through it? And that’s often ourselves.

And I think like on any airplane, you know, they have that wonderful metaphor that when we’re having difficulties and the oxygen mask drops down, if you are with the child, please put on the oxygen mask first so that you can then help your child. And I think it’s the same to be able to say that: for parents or caregivers or people taking care of kids, part of your being able to help them is being able to be in the best position to help them.

And I think that fear is infectious much like many of the other things that we’ve been dealing with and that there are ways that we can protect one another from even fear. And I think part of it is acknowledging our shared humanity and if we put on the metaphorical mask, part of it is how can we protect ourselves and how can we also protect others? 

And when that inner experience is not feeling good, like when it’s a fear or an anxiety or a sadness, then something you don’t want them to be alone in because maybe they can do something, or someone can do something for them to feel better. So when I’m sad, this is how I feel I’m labeling it. And what can I do when I feel sad? So I can listen to music. I can talk to my friend. I can take a walk. I could take five breaths. So then suddenly I have not only learned to label an emotion, but I’ve also learned to see what are my options or potential strategies around it. 

When I’m feeling sad or when I’m feeling scared, these are the some of the things that I can do to help myself. What can we do in terms of our own agency, in having some control over a situation that we might not feel control over. 


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