How to cope when emotions are raw and people may be feeling so many different things

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Days after the tragic shooting at King Soopers in the Table Mesa Shopping Center, members of the Boulder community and beyond continue to grapple with an array of emotions, from unspeakable grief and anger to a sense of powerlessness to a worry that after a year of so much bad news, we may be growing numb.

All these emotions are valid, and some of us may feel all of them over time, says Sona Dimidjian, director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute at CU Boulder. How we respond to them, she says, can make a difference in how we as individuals and as a community come through this.

CU Boulder Today sat down with Dimidjian to discuss the tragedy and mental health issues surrounding it.

Every time something like this happens, it’s emotionally devastating. What’s uniquely challenging about this time?

We first need to recognize that this tragedy is unimaginable just in and of itself. Then, we need to acknowledge the context of the past year. People have experienced social isolation and disconnection in unprecedented ways, and endured increased racialized violence and hate, and repeated personal and family loss.

In ‘normal’ times, we would hug one another or go out to eat or to a movie to feel better. That’s tough now. What can we do?

This is so true. I went to bring some food to a family who was very close in proximity to what happened last week. Upon greeting them I went to give them a hug, but seconds into it I remembered we needed to be 6 feet apart. That was really tough. Many ways we have to connect and offer comfort are not possible now. But we just need to keep reaching out to each other and stay connected remotely. When we can be together in person, we need that, too. One aspect of this past year of the pandemic is that we have recognized how interconnected we are. We need each other in order to grieve and heal.

Sona Dimidjian head shot

Sona Dimidjian

I’ve talked to some people who say they just feel ‘numb.’ They’re worried they are becoming desensitized to tragedy after such a tough year. Are they?

It’s important to realize that there is a wide range of very common responses people may be experiencing now. Also, what you feel now will likely shift in the coming days. There is not one “right” response. You may experience moments when distressing thoughts or emotions insert themselves into your awareness. All of a sudden, there it is, right in front of you. You may experience distance and detachment, not wanting to talk about it. Or trouble sleeping or concentrating. Some feel on edge, perhaps anxious going out to grocery stores or to other public places. I think a lot of people also have a deep feeling of fatigue and hopelessness. Pay attention to how long these persist. Do they interfere with your ability to connect and come together with others and engage in activities that are meaningful and important? Know also that there can be an opportunity here to feel awareness of connection and gratitude for community and motivation to take action and support one another.

Are there things we can do to keep from becoming desensitized?

My colleagues and I recently did a study looking at how people responded to stories and images of people who are suffering. Over a one-month period, we compared people who did a simple compassion meditation practice, sending care and wishing others freedom from pain and violence in their lives, and those who did not. We found that the compassion meditation practice yielded measurable benefits while those who looked at the images and heard the stories but had no tools to take action expressed less compassion over time. It shows that it is important to have some ways of responding to the suffering of others. We all have the capacity to respond to the compassion in us, and compassion is a skill that needs to be practiced in order to be strengthened.

I’ve also talked to people who just feel powerless-after Columbine, Aurora, now this. Are there things we can do to feel less powerless?

Absolutely. Part of compassion is that it motivates action. I think it is critical to act and act in coordinated and collaborative ways to prevent tragedies like this from occurring. I think we see this motivation for action now. At the same time, it is important to recognize that many people are in shock right now and grieving. It is important to make time to mourn. One thing is certain: We are not returning to business as usual. To create a different future, we must pay attention to and really feel and honor the losses of the present right now and act from there.

What advice do you have for people in our community for the coming days?

The Crown Institute has designed some tools. They include a very simple breathing practice that encourages people to pause, pay attention to what is happening in the moment and move into the next moment with awareness. They also include guidance in how to mindfully do familiar activities, as these routine activities can give us a sense of comfort and predictability and a way to anchor our attention when the world around us feels so scary and unpredictable. They also include specific ideas for how to be kind, to listen and to learn from one another.

What should the university community, specifically, keep in mind?

Rely on each other and know it is OK to ask for help. It is a sign of strength and it builds strength to both give help and ask for help at this time. As a professor and a mom of a first-year CU student, I would also tell our students that it is OK if you are feeling overwhelmed and you are struggling with classes or schoolwork. The same goes for our faculty and staff. Many of us are still reeling. The work that can happen here at our university is so important, and when people are exposed to a trauma as occurred last week, we need time to support each other and time to recover. We can trust that the learning and teaching and research will happen in due time. To get there, let’s hold each other with care.

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