Mass tragedies like the attack on the concert in Las Vegas take a real toll on everyone — not just those who are directly affected by it. As of this writing, we don’t yet know the motivations of the Vegas shooter, and a debate is already raging about whether or not it’s too soon to label the shooting an act of terrorism. But what’s not up for debate is that mass killings cause widespread fear and panic. This is especially true for people who are already vulnerable thanks to a mental illness like depression, PTSD or anxiety.
However, even if an attack is deliberately designed to be terrifying, that doesn’t mean we have to let the perpetrators win, says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist and author of A Happy You, a book about how to create your own sense of well-being, even in difficult times.
“When senseless acts of violence occur, we try to make sense of them in the best way we know how,” she says, “but what we do to feel in control again can actually make us feel worse.” Fortunately, there are things we can do to stay mentally healthy during a traumatic time.
Rule No. 1: Stop the information overload
Our instinct may be to get all the information we can, but once we’ve ascertained the basics of the situation, more information doesn’t help and can worsen depression, anxiety and stress. Instead, she says to spend less time passively reading (or watching) the news and more time actively doing something positive.
The next step is to make sure you’re practicing good self-care
This means not getting so caught up in what’s happening around us that you forget to exercise, eat well and connect with loved ones. You may feel like you don’t “deserve” to be happy when others are suffering, but Lombardo points out that your suffering for them doesn’t help them, or you, at all. In fact, wallowing in sadness only leads to more inaction.
Third, help others
The best way to feel like the world is a good place is to make it a good place. “We can use devastation to inspire good by reaching out to others and doing little acts of kindness,” Lombardo says. You can help with the specific tragedy, like donating blood for those affected by the Las Vegas shooting or money to a Kickstarter fund to help the victims and their families. Or you can simply work on doing good where you are by finding ways to help those around you. It can be as simple as opening a door and offering a kind word to a stranger, she says.
Lastly, resist the urge to hate
It’s more than understandable to see the perpetrators of such a heinous crime and want to hate them or even hate a whole group of people you associate with them. However, this is a waste of time and your mental resources. “More hate does not equal love, it just equals more hate,” Lombardo says. “And adding more negative energy to a trauma doesn’t help.”
Instead of looking for ways to lash out at those you hold responsible, find ways to help prevent future tragedies. Not only will this help other people, but it can help you stay grounded in the moment and fight off the depression and anxiety that naturally come with such an event. And if you do find yourself becoming overwhelmed by the traumatic event or unable to stop thinking about it, it is time to seek professional help. A therapist can help you process your feelings around the event before they spiral into a deeper problem.
Ultimately, the best thing we can do to fight evil in the world is to do more good — and you can’t do that if you’re not staying physically and mentally healthy.
Originally published June 2016. Updated October 2017.