Managing Stress After a Tragedy

By Dr. Jim Loehr, Ed.D.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “All change is preceded by crisis.” I have come to understand that, in a real sense, every crisis is a test, an unearthing of our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual limits. Sometimes we absorb the stress and quickly move on, and other times we are brought to our knees by the depth and dimension of the crisis.

Such was the case for many in the aftermath of the recent Orlando, Florida, shooting, which is miles from the Institute, and other recent tragic world events. Powerful feelings of fear, sadness, horror, rage, anger, guilt, and disbelief can surface uncontrollably. Our sensibilities can be completely shattered by the reality of such a horrific event. At the Institute, we have learned that events such as this – no matter how difficult or painful – can bring us face-to-face with underlying issues that have needed serious attention. Both our strengths and faults become exposed in the tides of stress. Every painful crisis forces us to confront the reality of who we are, where we are headed, and what we care most about. As Kierkegaard saw it, crisis often becomes a call for deep change that eventually leads to new strength and resiliency.

Narrative psychology has clearly taught us that more important than the tragedy itself is the story one creates around the tragedy. The story is the reality we give to the event, and the same event can be interpreted in vastly different ways with completely different outcomes. One interpretation (story) can leave us devastated, empty, disillusioned, and permanently harmed. Another story can facilitate healing, spawn new growth, and make us whole again.

A tragic event creates an opportunity for us to write a New Story, specifically around the tragedy. In this important process of articulating a New Story around the tragedy, stories have several elements in common:

  1. Grounded in the truth. Facing the truth of what actually happened is a prerequisite for positive transformation.
  2. Reflect our deepest values and sense of purpose. This is where our courage to fight originates.
  3. Takes us where we want to go in life – a story filled with hope, love, and gratitude for life.
  4. Reflects insight into the deeper meanings of life.
  5. Inspires us to make new changes to our lives that better align who we are with who we want to be. It is in this context that change is preceded by crisis.

In our experience at the Institute, the best way to get your story right is to craft it by hand, and continue to edit your story until it possesses real power for you. We then suggest re-reading your New Story often and revisiting it at least every two weeks. Eventually, your New Story will become a reality for you – spawning a new cycle of personal growth – borne out of crisis and struggle to help you become more resilient.