03/24/2011 01:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Healthy Coping Tips for Distant Disaster Stress

We live in a small, media-connected world, where any disastrous event happening anywhere may affect us all, at least psychologically. On the one hand, we need to be informed, so that we can help wherever possible and learn lessons that may prevent subsequent disasters. On the other hand, we need to be careful not to end up with internal emotional disasters stemming from empathy.

Coping well with disaster stress helps us all stay emotionally afloat in the anxiety-provoking sea of uncertainty generated by tragic events. We need to learn skills for coping with our feelings of sadness, anger and terror evoked by tragedies like those in Fukushima, Katrina and Haiti, so that we rise to these occasions rather than collapse into them.

Most importantly, we need to take some kind of action, no matter how small, in response to these events. That's because, as research indicates, a sense of helplessness is the worst trigger for stress. So if your heart reaches out to the victims, think about what you can do to help. Or think about what you can do to prevent a repeat episode with our own nuclear reactors. Become more knowledgeable, more political, or both. Use this potential threat as motivation to take better care of yourself and your loved ones, so that you all can stay healthy and resilient in the wake of disaster. Use tragedy to remind yourself to enjoy your daily life more, to love those near to you more and to be more grateful for what you have.

As you consider how to make the best of your feelings about a tragedy far away from home, keep in mind these healthy coping tips for distant disaster stress:

  1. Honor your feelings. Acknowledge your anger, sadness, fear and hope for the victims and, ultimately, for all of us and all of life. Express your feelings in a way that is honest yet safe -- for example, by writing down your fears; talking with a friend, family member, pastoral counselor or therapist; dancing, painting, drawing or playing music; or punching pillows, crying and otherwise making sounds that express how you feel.

  • Do Something. Do something helpful if you can. Contribute to disaster relief by donating your time or money.
  • Pray, or practice "positive worry." If there's nothing you can or will do, pray for the health and well-being of the victims. If you don't pray to a God or Higher Power, spend some time imagining the best possible outcome and sending your mental energy in that direction. When faced with a choice of fearing the worst or hoping for the best, always choose the latter. By directing your energy and hopes toward positivity, you will be taking action on the spiritual and energetic levels.
  • Offer comfort. Be calming, loving and supportive to the fearful people around you, especially children. Here's a link to child psychologist Charlotte Reznick's great tips for helping children cope with disaster. When we are scared, we all become more childlike, so keep in mind that these tips can be effective for as adults as well.
  • The idea that we need to manage our worrying on top of all the other challenges we need to face seems counter-intuitive, but it's actually a hidden opportunity. As the epigrammatist Ashleigh Brilliant says, "Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are masters of our fates and captains of our souls."