"‘Rae, I think you should listen to the headlines. Something bad has happened. Something bad in Manchester.’
Undoubtedly like many others we sat listening to the reports in stunned silence. The radio stayed on as I made breakfast and my partner got ready for work. More reports, more commentary, more despair at the senselessness of it all.
Now I’m sitting at my desk, alone with my careening thoughts.
How do we cope with such news? How do we maintain emotional stability in the face of tragedy?
I struggle with emotional regulation at the best of times. My resilience and grasp of healthy boundaries are also works-in-progress, leaving me vulnerable at times like this.
It is heart breaking to have to look for ways to maintain your emotional health in the face of tragedy, but unfortunately it is needed.
Recently we explored the concept of ‘opposite action’ in my Dialectical Behaviour Therapy group.
‘When your emotions do not fit the facts, or when acting on your emotions is not effective, acting opposite (all the way) will change your emotional reactions.’ (Marsha M. Linehan, DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets Second Edition, 2015).
My automatic response to learning of this bomb was to get under the bed covers and spend many hours alternating between sleep and bingeing on news and social media. Viciously swinging between being drawn in and wanting to escape.
Acting on my emotions definitely would not be effective. What could I do differently? What opposite action could I take?
Straightforward albeit not easy steps followed. I got in the shower instead of under the covers. I consciously decided I’d listened and read enough, so off went the radio and I used an app to disable social media on my phone for a while.
Alert to my own warning signs, I binned the small items of litter that I’d left scattered around. Plenty to drink. Opened the window for fresh air. My usual routine. Sitting down to work.
Three hours after first hearing about the attack, I am feeling my feelings but they aren’t overwhelming me.
As well as committing to opposite action, I felt compelled to undertake positive action as much as I could.
Instinctively I wanted to make our porridge, knowing that stirring the oats and milk in a pan feels like a grounding way to start any day. This is mindfulness, I guess – something else we’ve heavily focused on in the DBT group.
I’ve been deliberately more aware of nature this morning too, taking time to gaze at the spider weaving a web on the window and watching the pair of blackbirds flying in and out of their nearby nest.
I’ve been trying to come up with ways that I can support my old home city. Retweeting a few calls to give blood doesn’t feel like enough, although doing so reminded me that I already do donate regularly so perhaps I have contributed.
Remembering the good
The idea that I may already have done something useful upturned all of my typical thought patterns.
It can be difficult to recall anything positive, let alone good that we have done.
Yet this third strategy seems to be helping to counteract my usually selective memory. Seeing that this bomb targeted girls and young women, I was warmed to suddenly remember that I’ve been sponsoring a girl in Senegal for years.
I also own a programme from my first concert, Kylie Minogue’s Enjoy Yourself tour in 1990, that I could auction to raise a bit of money for those assisting at the scene and afterwards.
It seems strange to have to focus on your self in the face of tragedy affecting others, but it's an important part of self-care for those living with and without mental health issues."
About the author
Rae Ritchie worked as a historian for a decade before leaving academia to become a freelance writer and coach. Whether in the past or the present, she is fascinated in how people make sense of themselves and their lives. This professional interest has undoubtedly been encouraged by her own wrangling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.