From Hurricanes to Hate Crimes

The Science of Healing and Helping

By Christopher Willard

It seems that after any disaster or tragedy, be it a horror of human making, or the aftermath of nature’s wrath, be it across the oceans or around the corner, we are inundated with images of suffering across our TV screens and social media feeds. We witness faces contorted with fear, mouths gaping in disbelief, bodies crouched, crying uncontrollably. In fact, as our mirror neurons pick up on the pain and anguish that we witness, we find ourselves mirroring the anguish we witness. Experiencing compassion very literally means that we too suffer along with the survivors of tragedy and trauma. What’s more, our children do too, with fewer resources for how to manage and muddle forward.

As we fall into fear and vicarious trauma, we can very literally feel the pain and suffering of others. But how can we channel that energy into facing and alleviating that hurt, rather than turning away? Just as when we experience a threat directly, the nervous systems switch flips to fight, flight, freeze or tells us to “forget it” and turn away when we witness others it pain. The more we see and feel the more our brains rewire for these stress responses and the more likely we are to ultimately fall into helplessness, misperceptions, mistrust, and dysregulation that can last far beyond the initial incident. In children, this can be an even more insidious form of post-traumatic stress that rewires a young body and brain across their lifetime. In adults, this is empathy fatigue, something we can manage through mindfulness and compassion, shifting us back into turning toward and helping, rather than turning away.

In the short term, we can also shift our reaction with a simple practice. I learned this, from, of all people, Fred Rogers, known to millions of us as the affable Mr. Rogers of children’s television from our youth. There’s an old quote that gives me and my family solace in turbulent and troubled times.  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Mr. Rogers, or rather, Mr. Rogers’ mother, (after all, let’s give credit where its due), reminds all us that we have a choice. We can focus on the suffering and horror, and we should, as much as is healthy before we shut down and burn out.  And so too can we remember to let in the good–to see the helpers and the healers just as Mr. Rogers suggests.

We can see a child’s body carried on a stretcher, and we can also remember to look at the two EMT’s who showed up for work knowing they would have to carry that weight. We can see the couple crouched and crying at a scene of their destroyed home, and we can notice the arms that hug them close. We can see the frightened children with water swirling around them, faces full of fear, and we can see the rescue worker carrying them to safety. We can see the survivor draped in a blanket, and we can remember just out of the frame is the first responder handing out blankets, comforting the next person and reminding them they will be okay. We must never look away from the swastika spray painted on the playground, but lets look too at the parents who covered the whole park with flowers. There are the EMTs, the firefighters, the police officers, the friends and strangers offering food and rides home, some seen, some unseen. There are the parents and the professionals, the friends and family, and there are the strangers we never meet or remember to thank. There are the hospital workers and grief counselors, political activists and their courageous calls for change, the friends who babysit for an injured parent, the diaper donators and the teachers who offer homework extensions, the letters and cards and teddy bears that pour in from around the globe, and so many more helpers seen and unseen. These are who to point out to our children and families, and in doing so, we remind ourselves of the good in this broken world.

So the next time sorrow splashes across your screen, take a moment and a deep breath and look for and point out the helpers, on and off the screen, in the story and off the page. Yes, the science suggests that witnessing trauma can lead to vicarious trauma. But it also shows that when we witness an act of kindness that can inspire us to compassionate action too in a contagion of kindness and generosity. In fact, our generous action inspires others, which in turn inspires still others, even up to three degrees of separation from the original act of kindness. What’s more, it helps us and our families make meaning and good from tragedy.

The child sees the parent open their checkbook for charity and goes to their piggy bank to send a donation to another child, who in turn shares his dessert with lonely child in a shelter thousands of miles away, who gives a longer hug to their baby sister settling down for the night in a strange bed far from the comforts of their home. When we all pause long enough to see this clearly, a sense of helplessness falls away and we can more readily become aware of our own generous impulses and consider too how we too might be a helper, seen or unseen.

Take a moment now to find some helpers. Take a breath, and look at the news, letting your eyes fall the images on the news or in your newsfeed, sadly, you may not have to look far. Look for the helpers, on and off the screen.

Take a look right now out the window, or at the helpers on your commute to or from work, even at work. See how many you can count.

Point them out to your children when you see them, on tragic days and mundane days, remind them of who they can be and how they can respond.

You may also reflect as a family on to how you too have been helped over time. Take the time to reflect on everyone who has helped you and your family through challenging times, sharing those stories. It doesn’t have to be fires or floods, disasters it can be the neighbor who babysat in a pinch, the friends who shopped when you broke your arm, a colleague who picked up your work when you were grieving. Who were the helpers in your life, in your family’s life, who have helped you to get where you are today.

And then, if you feel up to it, send them a quick thank you.

Christopher Willard (PsyD) is a psychologist and consultant based in Boston. The author of Raising Resilience and multiple other books, he leads seminars on sharing mindfulness with youth worldwide. He teaches at Harvard Medical School.

Join Christopher Willard, Sharon Salzberg, and Mark Bertin on June 5 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan for a panel discussion, “Raising Resilient Children and Creating Thriving Families: Learning from Science and Wisdom Traditions.” Purchase your tickets here.   

Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

 

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