Coping with tragedy

Sonoma County fires
Vivan Roan/File

During the past two months, it feels as though there have been more national tragedies than ever before. Not only have Americans had to endure Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, but we also had to face one of the largest shootings in American history and now the Sonoma County fires, which have burned through more than 100,000 acres of land. The latest in this string of events has been almost unavoidable on our campus, with air quality conditions ranging from unhealthy to hazardous for most of last week.

With this constant stream of horrifying events, how are we at UC Berkeley dealing with these tragedies? And how do we cope with these events mentally and emotionally? Professor Aaron Fisher of the UC Berkeley psychology department gives his perspective on how students here at Berkeley are coping with the constant presence of tragedy and stressors.

The Daily Californian: Are there specific psychological or cognitive processes that occur when a person encounters a tragedy?

Aaron Fisher: There is a theory in psychology … of the allostatic load … The idea is that psychologically, physiologically, biologically, you can only handle so many demands above the normal demands of just being alive — that’s demanding in and of itself.

(This) has a lot of layers because it starts with whether people register this as stressful. … Is someone even attending to what’s going on? To the degree that they’re attending to what’s going on, does it register as stressful? … (Then) it’s dependent on your prior experience: how close this feels to you, how threatening it feels to you, the degree to which its affecting your daily life. … (It’s) the accumulation of them together, especially when … there’s the daily stress of the president of the United States and his level of dishonesty and his level of malice that he brings to his job.

So, that’s kind of a background noise, and then you build on top of that another mass shooting (and) a political body that doesn’t seem motivated to address an ongoing threatening situation (like in Puerto Rico). (Essentially) you have multiple natural disasters that are affecting us nationally, and then again there’s those political layers of inaction. If you pay attention to that, it’s upsetting. We go from the world figuratively feeling as if it’s on fire, and then suddenly the world is literally on fire.

DC: What are the expected responses to this inundation?

AF: You’re going to be distracted, even if just at an attentional level. (It’s) what we call “functional impairment,” which is just a fancy way of saying not getting your stuff done … not being able to study well just out of pure distraction. There will be sleep disturbance, fatigue, exhaustion. For someone who genuinely is facing a kind of stress overload … they could have heart palpitations, they could have nausea, sweating or dizziness. I mean, these things all come from a hyper-arousal of the physiological stress response …  That would sound like some serious stuff, but if you’re really accumulating a lot of stress and if you’re not getting enough sleep, that’s exactly the kind of stuff you might expect to happen.

“The idea is that psychologically, physiologically, biologically, you can only handle so many demands above the normal demands of just being alive — that’s demanding in and of itself.”

— Aaron Fisher

DC: So, do these responses vary depending on certain age groups? Would you expect something different from a college student as opposed to someone out of college dealing with something like this?

AF: If you’re looking for factors that would predict different responses from different people, college student versus “adult” wouldn’t be the first place I would look. I would look at prior traumatization, prior exposure to some of these experiences — hurricanes, gun violence, or even something that wouldn’t seem related. If there’s someone who’s been in an abusive relationship, being traumatized in that way … can predispose you to having a stronger reaction to the gun violence or the fires. Human beings are complex, (and) there are a lot of different things that can contribute to differential responses.

DC: How do you think that the constant stream of news that college students have access to is affecting how they deal with tragedies? Do you think that having constant access to something like CNN updates on your phone affects us psychologically?

AF: Maybe. It might increase exposure, but again, it wouldn’t be the thing I (would) focus on. … There’s a difference in the degree to which people engage in what’s going on around them. I do think, for the type of person who is driven for one reason or another to really deeply and persistently engage, maybe the internet is not the best thing. … I do think that we are in an acute period of upheaval. I think this is a very stressful time, and I think that it’s compounded by those of us who believe in the ideas of science and the evidence of climate change, and then to see these hurricanes and these fires, and then to feel like our leaders are not responding appropriately … I think that it’s a stressful time for everyone, including college students.

“In your 20s, there is this excitement, there is this sense of adventure, there is this sense of the unknown but …  there are also these levels of angst and existential uncertainty that are very unique to (the) college-aged time of life.”

— Aaron Fisher

DC: Is there something unique to the college experience that might create extra stress in these times of social upheaval?

AF: I do think that there is this “grown up” tendency to dismiss the stresses of college-aged people because they don’t pay a mortgage and they don’t have a nine-to-five job. But I think that’s ridiculous because there are different stresses at different points in life … People in their 30s, 40s, 50s, romanticize the 20s, and I understand that. In your 20s, there is this excitement, there is this sense of adventure, there is this sense of the unknown but …  there are also these levels of angst and existential uncertainty that are very unique to (the) college-aged time of life. … There are unique features of being a college student right now. I think this is a very stressful time.

DC: How would you recommend that students take care of themselves psychologically in light of recent events?

AF: The one thing that I would encourage people to do is engage in self-care. Take time … to do things that give you pleasure, spend time with people that give you joy and comfort. I think that’s the most important thing. Don’t be so consumed with the problems of the world that it is the only thing you pay attention to.

Of course, it is something we should pay attention to. We should advocate that Black Lives Matter, we should advocate that Puerto Rican Americans are Americans, we should fight the fires in the North Bay, we should give food and time — we should do so many things. … But we should also give each other hugs, and we should watch romantic comedies, and we should eat gelato.

Contact Grace Vogel at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @grace_vogel1.