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Stanford University School of Medicine

Grief and compassion experts offer tips for overcoming fear and anxiety after tragedy

Sutures, splints and butterfly bandages work well for cuts and broken bones, but what mends a shattered psyche? As Mark Abramson, DDS, and Fred Luskin, PhD, explain in a recent webinar on grief and compassion, many of us aren't sure.

After the recent hurricanes, the shooting in Las Vegas and the Northern California wildfires, many people may be feeling high levels of fear, vulnerability and anxiety, said Luskin, a Stanford lecturer who specializes in forgiveness.

"Our nervous systems are designed to alert us to danger and warn us when things are not safe... so we take action," Luskin said. "But threats are everywhere — and if we aren't careful — the part of our brain that tells us we're in danger can take over."

Fortunately, there are ways to overcome fearful thoughts that persist long after the initial danger has passed. In the hour-long webinar, Abramson, the founder and facilitator of Stanford Medicine's Mindfulness-Meditation Based Stress Reduction program, and Luskin walk through several techniques to address fearful thoughts, demonstrate breathing and meditation exercises, and answer questions from viewers such as, "What do I say to someone who's suffered a tragedy?" and "How do I help someone with survivor's guilt?"

One way to manage anxiety and fear, Abramson explained, is to recognize fearful thoughts in a non-judgmental way. Abramson said he used this technique on himself to overcome the anxiety he felt after he was struck by a stolen vehicle while walking down a sidewalk at the age of 14.

"I would jump out of my skin and run to the other side of the street," he said, recalling how fearful he was around cars after his accident. He struggled to control his fears for a while, and then he realized he had a choice: He could continue to beat himself up for being afraid, or he could be kind to himself and simply acknowledge his fears for what they were.

From then on, each time Abramson felt afraid, he would say to himself:

Thank you. I know you're trying to save me. I know you don't want me to get hurt again, but notice at this moment I'm okay.

Over time, his fears diminished. "That's where I really learned mindfulness," Abramson said. "It's not about stopping your thinking, your thoughts, or controlling them. It's tuning in through the experience of our senses to be with ourselves."

It's also important to set realistic expectations for yourself after a tragedy. Many people are afraid to "give up" being hard on themselves — even when times are tough — because they fear they'll slack off and become a failure, Abramson explained.

In reality, "if your world has been rocked, you're not going to go back to your 'old center' very quickly," Luskin said. "Patience and kindness toward yourself are essential. It takes quite a bit of time [for the brain] to reorganize and create homeostasis again."

Another helpful way to overcome fear, Luskin said, is to remember that good things and people are present even in times of turmoil:

We live in a world of almost astonishing beauty, and even in the tragedy at Las Vegas people were trying to help each other... One of the things we have to be careful of when we are frightened is not to lose sight of the goodness, and beauty, and kindness and generosity of human beings.

Abramson and Luskin welcome questions on this webinar and can be reached by email.

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