News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

How to cope as tragic events seem to mount

People gather around a makeshift memorial to pay tribute to the victims of an attack in the French Riviera city of Nice on July 15, 2016, a day after when a man rammed a truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing at least 84 people.
People gather around a makeshift memorial to pay tribute to the victims of an attack in the French Riviera city of Nice on July 15, 2016, a day after when a man rammed a truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing at least 84 people.
Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 18MB

The Bastille Day tragedy in Nice. Three officers killed in Baton Rouge, five in Dallas. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The mass shooting Orlando. 

From an attack on a restaurant in Bangladesh to the bombing of an airport in Turkey, at times it feels relentless. 

How we can process such awful events, especially when they seem to come in such quick succession?

Psychologist Melissa Brymer, who specializes in trauma at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, spoke with Take Two to offer some advice.

What's the difference in how we deal with a personal tragedy and a more public one, the likes of which we've seen so many of lately?

Sometimes it depends on what our personal experiences have been. If we have grown up a member of a law enforcement family, the impact of Dallas and of Baton Rouge might hit home. You might have traveled to the south of France and walked those streets. And so sometimes we find connections with how we might have been close to those areas. Sometimes we've had our own experiences that help us understand what those people are experiencing.

What about the effect of having people all over the world connecting with a tragedy as opposed to a more personal tragic event that others might not know about?

There's a public mourning or a sense of wanting to come together to make a difference. We want to make a change, and that change— whether it's to stop terrorism, whether it's to change injustices that are happening in our community, or to stop violence— there's a collective response to try to honor the loved ones who were killed in this event, but also a question of what can we do about it and how can we stop these incidents from happening. And sometimes when there's more of a private tragedy, we don't get that outcry like you do with some of these public events, and so you're addressing it more privately and it can be sometimes isolating. At the same time, if you're in more of a public forum in your grief, that can also be a struggle.

What about just the sheer number of events? Can they have a sort of snowball effect?

Absolutely, and that's when I've been having to talk to people about how do you take care of yourself. You want to be making sure that these events aren't getting you to where you aren't able to function. So it's important to check in: How is this impacting you? Are you starting to have difficulty sleeping, not attending to wellness for yourself, such as taking care of how you're eating? And so sometimes its okay to step away from it all and give yourself a break and monitor what's happening in chunks rather than watching this all the time.

Having trouble sleeping or eating is one thing, but what about a general concern for what seems to be happening to humanity? A friend recently posted on Facebook: "I feel like something is happening, changing, darkening. Every day we're hit not just with awful news, but unspeakable soul-shattering horrors. It's chipping away at our humanity and reason." How do we not get off track with feelings like that?

I think we have to make sure we're not losing our hope. We each have a responsibility to make a difference and so how do we then ask that second question of 'What can I do about it? What kind of change can I make to make a difference? What part of humanity do I feel like is being chipped away, and what's the piece that I can do about it?' And that's the piece where we want to make sure that hope is still part of the equation. It may be volunteering, it may be participating in some of the questions about what injustices are happening. There's so many different ways that we can either participate or do something for each of our communities. Even if it's happening in a different community, that same change probably has to happen here too. 

You mentioned earlier about stepping away from the news, is there something different about stepping away from the news on social media where there seems to be less of a filter?

It's the news of the events themselves, but also sometimes the reactions are less filtered on social media. And so it can also hurt us more. Sometimes we might have people in our feeds that have very strong opinions that are hard to read or hard to see, so I think we need to be careful of how much social media we intake. It's very easy to get hooked in, so I think we have to actively check out so that we're not becoming overwhelmed. And that includes even monitoring some of the conversations we're having with friends of ours. If there's folks that want to debate things it's okay to say, 'You know what, I'm done with this conversation.' Or 'Can we switch it for awhile?' I think setting limits for ourselves is critical to maintaining ourselves.

The questions and responses have been edited for clarity.