How the Body Reacts to Tragedy—And How to Move Forward

Tragic and unpredictable events can take a physical and mental health toll. Find ways to cope with unimaginable loss.

two women embrace in grief

Updated on October 9, 2023.

In recent years, life has been disrupted by a seemingly endless string of tragedies, from school shootings, hurricanes, wildfires, terrorist attacks, war, and other horrific events that claimed innocent lives. Being inundated by catastrophe and constantly trying to make sense of the senseless when events unfold in real time at the swipe of a finger can make the world seem like a dark, hopeless—even dangerous place.

Each tragedy forces people to react and cope in their own way. Within minutes, the body’s “fight or flight” response may take over. Facing a life-threatening or extremely stressful situation can trigger the production of stress hormones and a cascade of physical changes in the body. The heart may pound, breathing may speed up, muscle can become tense, and sweating may intensify. This is often called the “fight or flight” response, which has evolved to help people face or escape dire threats. In some cases, people may have the opposite response and “freeze,” or be unable to move or react.

As details unfold in the passing hours, days, weeks, and months, a wide range of variables can affect how people respond, including their own experiences, their exposure to the incident, age and life skills, and their level of community or family support.

Different people may have a diverse range of thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Many will ask questions in an attempt to understand or process what has happened—Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? What should I have done to help?

Answers to those questions may not always be clear or easy to find. Shootings and other incidents of mass violence or destruction can destabilize your sense of safety and order, even if the event occurred thousands of miles away and affected people you’ve never met. Tragedies can challenge some basic assumptions about the world—that things happen in a fair or predictable way, that we have some control over our lives, and that people are inherently good and trustworthy.

The harsh unpredictability of tragic events can be particularly distressing and trigger a range of reactions that affect our bodies, minds, and behavior. Some of the physical symptoms that may appear include:

  • Loss of energy or fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Grinding of teeth
  • Dry mouth or thirst
  • Feeling shaky or weak
  • Severe sweating
  • Stomach pain or digestive problems

Tragedy can also trigger a wide range of emotions and some changes in mental well-being, which can vary from one person to the next, such as:

  • Intense anxiety
  • Sadness or anger
  • Feeling numb, hopeless, or powerless
  • Excessive worry or unexplained guilt
  • Feeling agitated or unable to relax
  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Ruminating or having flashbacks of the tragic event

Behavioral changes can also occur among those who’ve experienced tragic or traumatic events, including:

  • Nightmares or disrupted sleep
  • Becoming socially isolated
  • Frequent crying or outbursts
  • Changes in appetite or eating patterns
  • Avoidance of certain places or people that resurface difficult memories or negative reactions
  • Heavy smoking, drinking, or drug use

Keep in mind, kids and teens may respond to trauma differently than adults. Young children may regress and do things they’ve outgrown, like bed-wetting, forgetting how to walk or talk, or being overly clingy to their caregivers. Older children and teens may respond more like adults but also develop some disruptive behaviors and act disrespectfully or destructively.  

How to regain some sense of control

People’s physical and mental reactions to tragic events may happen right away or take months—possibly years— to manifest. In most cases, they lessen and become more tolerable over time. For some people, however, traumatic experiences can have lasting negative effects. When exposure to trauma or tragedy interferes with your daily life, it’s time to seek help from a trained healthcare professional.

Some other ways to cope with tragic events:

Avoid alcohol and other substances. It may be tempting to seek solace in unhealthy ways. Do not smoke, drink, or take drugs to cope with difficult circumstances or feelings. Fear and anxiety can trigger strong emotions but using substances to cope can do more harm than good and worsen feelings of depression and anxiety.

Seek support from friends and loved ones. Connecting with others and sharing your thoughts and concerns can help you process your feelings and cope with adversity. A support group of people who are also coping with loss or trauma could also provide comfort and help you feel less isolated.

Try to maintain your normal routine. It may seem difficult, but going through the motions— eating, sleeping, and exercising as usual—can help you restore some sense of order. It can also help ensure you’re getting the nutrition, sleep, and movement you need to stay healthy and support others who need you.

Do something. Find ways to help others in your community or those affected by the tragedy. Assisting others can not only help alleviate their suffering but help you cope with the events as well.

Remember that grief is a process that takes time. Healing doesn’t always follow a linear path. Waves of grief may come and go at various times. Some people may be able to compartmentalize their loss and move forward in a matter of months. For others, this could take years.

Have compassion for yourself—and empathy for others. Allow yourself to experience your thoughts and feelings. Even if you are not directly affected by tragic events, your reaction to them is valid. Talk about how you are feeling with people you trust. Similarly, allow others to express themselves without judgment.

Be mindful of the specific needs of children. Allow young people to ask questions and respond in a way they can understand. Provide information in small, age-appropriate doses. Limit television viewing or live streaming of these events in common areas where children may be present or be able to see or hear what is happening. Similarly, be aware of conversations surrounding tragic events. Avoid talking about them in front of children or even teenagers to limit their exposure to details and reactionary comments that may be misunderstood. It’s also important to be aware that kids may receive misinformation or misinterpret facts from their friends and classmates. Try to reassure kids by teaching them how to protect themselves, giving hugs or physical contact when they need it, and making plans to do things together.

Article sources open article sources

U.S. National Institutes of Health. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services: Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Accessed May 25, 2022.
U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. Coping With Traumatic Events. Jan 2020.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Incidents of Mass Violence. Apr 14, 2022.
Brown University. Normal Reactions to Tragic Events. Accessed May 25, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Substance Abuse. Mar 19, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emergency Preparedness and Response: Taking Care of Your Emotional Health. Sep 13, 2019.
American Psychological Association. Managing your distress in the aftermath of a shooting. Jul 29, 2019.

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