How do we cope with unending communal grief and trauma?
How do we cope with unending communal grief and trauma?

How do we cope with unending communal grief and trauma?

Just a month into 2023, we’ve already suffered more than 1,600 gun deaths in the US. Whether it’s a mass shooting, police brutality, or family homicide, news of senseless violence can seem unrelenting, as if we’re trapped in a nightmare version of Groundhog Day

It’s heartbreaking, exhausting and damaging to our physical and mental health. To care for yourself, tune into your body for signs of stress, and take a break. Then when you’re able, channel your distress into constructive action.

Read on to learn more about recognizing stress in your body, coping with it, and taking meaningful action.

Illustration of person experiencing emotional trauma
Illustration by Joseph Moore

Many of us feel tense right now. We reel from news about one tragedy to the next. For some of us, the devastation hits close to home and feels very personal. Others are lucky enough to be more removed, yet still feel wounded. Even if a tragic event doesn’t happen in our communities, and even if we don’t know anyone involved, senseless acts of violence affect us all. It’s natural to empathize with the victims, to worry about the safety of our communities, and to wonder, “Who’s next?” 

Whether these traumatic events happen in your community or not, the impact to your health can be very real. Unrelenting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems. It’s implicated in high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other conditions [1]. It can make it harder for us to be good parents, friends and partners, and it puts us at greater risk of developing anxiety, depression, or even cognitive decline [2]. 

You can’t control events in the news, but you can take steps to reduce the negative impact they have on your physical and mental health. Pay attention to cues from your body that you’re holding onto stress. What does your body feel like right now? Are you feeling any pain or tightness? Is your breathing regular or shallow? Is your stomach relaxed or clenched? Are your shoulders loose or stiff? 

If your body feels tense, take a few minutes to tune out. Excuse yourself from the conversation, put down social media, take a break from work, and ground yourself with one of these exercises. By doing this, you’ll be better able to channel your energy into constructive efforts to improve the situation. 

Grounding exercises to cope with stress and trauma 

Grounding techniques help you create space from distressing thoughts. They’re useful for calming yourself down when you’re tense or stressed so that you can later focus on more productive ways to direct your anger, fear or distress. 

Soothe yourself 

Engage your senses to focus on the present moment. Do something that brings you pleasure. 

  • Watch a funny video or go outside and look at nature 
  • Listen to your favorite song or a funny podcast 
  • Light a candle and enjoy the smell 
  • Taste warm, comforting foods 
  • Take a bath, snuggle with your pet, or touch something soft and soothing 
Use your mind 
  • List 4 things for which you’re grateful. Picture each one in your mind. 
  • Think of 4 categories (such as movies, foods, vacation spots) and write down 3 of your favorite things from each category. 
  • Think of a poem, song or passage that you know by heart. Recite it in your mind or aloud. 
  • Count backward from 100. 
  • Play a memory game. Stare at a detailed picture for 10 seconds and then put it away. Visualize the scene in as much detail as you can. 
Expand your breath 

There are many different breathing exercises you can try. Here are a few simple ones. Go easy and don’t force it. 

  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathe gently and regularly. 
  • Breathe in for 5 counts and out for 5 counts. 
  • Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, breathe out with a whoosh for 8 counts. Repeat 3 times. 
Practice acts of kindness 

Another way of coping with situations you can’t control is to direct your energy toward helping others. You may not be able to end gun violence, but you can put time and energy into improving your community. 

Channel your rage into constructive action 

Anger can give you a helpful push to get stuff done. It’s energizing and motivating. Use that momentum to plan steps you can take to improve the situation, whether that’s getting involved with likeminded organizations, participating in peaceful protests or petitioning your local government. Taking constructive action, no matter how small, is likely to make you feel more empowered and less distressed. 

Next Steps 

We hope these exercises and suggestions help you create a few moments of peace in your day. If you or someone you love struggles with significant grief, trauma, tension or distress, you might benefit from talking to a professional. 

For mental health care in Tennessee, contact Athena Care.

One of our Care Coordinators will help you get the care you need.

Photo of Rachel Swan
Rachel Swan, MS

Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.