Psychology of Tragedy: Understanding, Coping and Moving forward

Psychology of Tragedy: Understanding, Coping and Moving forward


Tragedy is defined as an event or sequence of events that can occur singly or collectively, resulting in pain and suffering that impacts us on many levels (emotional, social, physical, coping, creative and spiritual). People frequently suffer from severe emotional discomfort, which is first defined by a decreased capacity to apply coping mechanisms and problem-solving techniques. Tragedy can have profoundly beneficial or terrible effects on people, depending on how they handle the changes it causes.

Subjects such as traumatic stress, stress response syndrome, grief, crisis, and victimization all receive scholarly attention. Examining the similarities and differences between them and the tragic is not only informative but also fascinating, and such topics will be the focus of future articles. There are numerous problems that require attention. For example, victimization was analyzed phenomenologically to clarify its experiential characteristics (Wertz, 1985).

Intuitively, we know that many participants involved in a tragedy may also experience victimization, but non-tragic moments of victimization also exist. However, traumatic stress and stress response syndrome are mainly defined based on scientific approaches. Although their characterization is based on experiences that are likely to be tragic, they lack fidelity to experience. As a result, the experiential nature of tragedy is still not fully understood across psychology.

Historical Perspectives on Tragedy

At first glance, the theme of tragedy appears to be more of a literary theme than an academic discussion. However, the term tragedy has acquired a wider definition since the tragoidia, a Greek cultural and religious theater from the fifth century. It crept into the language of everyday experience and gained conceptual status in the field of philosophy through Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, his.

In psychology, the close relationship between theatrical tragedy and psychoanalytic theory was forged by Freud when he recognized the striking similarities between human desire on the one hand and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex on the other. Freud uses the ancient Greek play to capture the essential dynamics of human development and confront us with the implications that psychological maturation is tragic.

Psychological literature that deals explicitly with tragedy is rare and its focus is exclusively on psychoanalysis. On the one hand, there is Freud’s perspective, which is synonymous with his classical understanding of human nature, and on the other hand, an analysis that describes his as a process of observation and intuition within the framework of psychoanalysis.

Read more: Father of Psychoanalysis: A Deep Dive into the Life of Sigmund Freud

From this perspective of psychoanalytic practice, tragic experience emerges with greater and more sensitive emphasis.The nuances of tragedy that exist outside the framework of classical theory are better expressed by these clinicians. However, competing analytical perspectives provide a partial perspective on the tragic failure to maintain the integrity of the phenomenon. Although psychoanalysis is credited with bringing this feature of human existence into the realm of scientific research, its treatment of the subject is incomplete. Therefore, the empirical nature of tragedy in psychoanalysis is still not fully understood.

Why do we feel drawn to tragedy?

  1. People often pay special attention to negative information because it seems important. [Tragic news] carries more psychological weight than positive information, and this makes evolutionary sense: We are aware of where potential dangers and threats lurk in our environment. Because we want to know, our attention is drawn to problems and negative information. Humans naturally look for problems because they want to survive and solve problems.
  2. Tragedies are exciting because they involve dangerous, life-threatening situations, which add fuel to the fire of attention. Such high-risk situations increase the existential threat. When people think about these horrific situations, they may imagine that the same fate awaits them. It’s a worrying possibility, but it’s also a fate that makes you feel at ease sitting safely at home. We may also compare ourselves to those affected by tragedy and be grateful that we are not facing the same problems.
  3. And here’s the really dark side: When someone hates or resents someone who has suffered a tragedy, some of them may feel schadenfreude. In schadenfreude, people take pleasure in seeing their enemies or rivals punished. They may also take pleasure in seeing the object of their envy “humiliated”, especially if the object of their envy’s interests seem just or unjust. That is, if people think that those facing this tragedy actually deserve their suffering, they may feel a sense of dark satisfaction when they see justice prevail.

Related: Ghosting and Dark Psychology

The Emotional Impact of Tragedy

Psychological theories on emotional responses to tragic stimuli encompass various perspectives, including the James-Lange theory and Cannon-Bard theory.

The Cannon-Bard theory 

According to this idea, a variety of emotion-inducing situations simultaneously cause the physiological responses that go along with the subjective experiences we refer to as emotions. You get a racing heart, a dry mouth, and other symptoms of physiological arousal when you see the professor and the audience, pen poised to assess your performance. You also get subjective sentiments that you categorize as fear. Put differently, this circumstance activates different parts of your nervous system, leading to the production of both subjective feelings, which are mediated by your cerebral cortex and other brain regions, and arousal, which is mediated by your autonomic nervous system. 

Related: The Power of Autonomy: Why It Matters in Psychology

On the other hand, the James-Lange theory presents a more unexpected perspective on emotion. It implies that physiological alterations in our bodies are the true cause of our subjective emotional experiences. Stated differently, you experience fear when giving a speech because you become aware of your heart palpating, your mouth parched, and so forth.

Neurobiology of Trauma

When someone experiences a traumatic event or extreme fear, their brain chemistry changes and the brain begins to function differently. This is called the “fear circuit” and it is a protective mechanism that is built into all of us. Understanding the neurobiology of trauma (essentially, how trauma affects the brain) can help break down common misconceptions and victim-blaming surrounding gender-based violence, and help survivors share their experiences.

Read more: How Emotions Play an Important Role in Decision-Making

It is important because it helps us re-understand the process and its consequences.  The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making/decision-making part of the brain. It is the part of the brain responsible for thinking rationally, planning effective responses, and remembering important information. When a person experiences a traumatic event or experiences extreme fear, the “fear circuit” may become activated and the  function  of  the prefrontal cortex may begin to decline.

This means that a person in the midst of trauma may not be able to think through the situation and make decisions such as asking for help. It’s not a matter of choice. Their brains are in survival mode and their fear circuitry completely bypasses their prefrontal cortex. Many people are familiar with the concept of “fight or flight,” but research has shown that there is a third reaction he has called “freeze”. A common example is a deer caught in  headlights, but humans have a similar fear response. In fact,  the most common response to trauma and fear is to cower rather than fight back or run away.

Related: Trauma: Types, Symptoms and Treatment

In addition to freezing, some survivors may experience extreme survival reflexes such as tonic immobility and collapse. If you’ve ever seen a possum go limp when it feels scared, you’re familiar with this brain response. Feeling groggy, “sleepy,” passed out,  unable to move or speak at all is a survival mechanism hardwired into our brains. Even apex predators like sharks react to them. It is not a sign of weakness or a choice of the person. Survivors may also experience dissociation,  a survival reflex in which someone feels disconnected from their body or goes into “autopilot” mode.

In autopilot mode, a person does not use their prefrontal cortex to make decisions and instead relies on their habitual way of life. Habitual responses are rooted in socialization. For example, women are raised to be polite and courteous, to “save face” or to appease. This means that even if you perform a sexual act, say something polite, or smile during the assault, you may not consent. They are actually experiencing extreme fear and their brains are on autopilot as a survival mechanism.

Related: How does Socializing improve your Quality of Life?

When a traumatic event occurs, memories are encoded differently. The brain does not encode memories in chronological order, there are gaps in memory, and what the “fear circuits” in the brain were alerted to during an attack may be encoded into the memory rather than surrounding details. will be higher. For example, a survivor may distinctly remember the smell of their assailant’s cologne, but may not remember what the room was like. Contextual information (e.g. , the layout of a room) and temporal order information (e.g., the order in which sexual acts occur) are often not properly encoded. Again, this is not a conscious decision by the survivors about what to focus on and remember during the attack. This is a common effect that occurs in the brain when the  survival response “fear circuit” is activated. All of these are  based on normal brain processes that occur during extremely  stressful or traumatic situations.

How can individuals establish a new “normal” after experiencing tragedy?

Tragedy and disaster can shake us to our core and dramatically change our perspective on what’s important in life. It is often impossible to return to the state before the tragedy. Going through the adjustment process takes time and requires allowing yourself  to be yourself wherever you are in the process. Finding your “new normal” is a journey, so patience, support, and encouragement  from others and yourself can help. This happened when I was leading the cancer survivorship organization Finding Your New Normal (FYNN). Members often say, “It took a year or two for my mind to catch up after my body healed”. They say that they have noticed changes in their relationships, beliefs, ways of looking at things, attitudes, and the way they spend their time, and that they feel refreshed.

Related: Beyond Trauma: Illuminating the Power of Post-Traumatic Growth

How can we offer support to a friend or loved one impacted by a tragedy?

A little synthesis of the above would be to be a good listener, to be fully present and available, and to be able to share and bear the person’s pain and suffering. Sitting in pain is one of the most difficult and selfless things we can do for each other. Many of us instinctively avoid interacting with this emotion, so we try to calm it down as best we can. And while there is room for that, the greater gift is to show them that you  feel for them as well as for them.  Sometimes it helps to do something specific, like bring something with you, but  be careful not to  just do something. Listen and respond to this person’s specific needs. Remember that all tragedies affect different people differently. Therefore, support must be tailored to the needs of each individual patient. Finally, if someone is in life-threatening distress, be aware of their immediate needs and  take appropriate action.

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Coping Mechanisms and Resilience in the Face of Tragedy

A facet of emotional toughness is: the capacity to bounce back from trying and stressful periods in one’s life. Anger, anxiety, and despair are just a few of the strong unpleasant emotions that people who are stressed out often face. Some people never really let go of these bad feelings, even after the stressful situations that first brought them on have passed. Conversely, those who possess emotional resilience can return to their regular emotional state with ease. They’ve sort of figured out how to put on a “hard hat,” a shield that lets them go on.

Related: Building a Strong Mind: Practical Steps for Enhancing Psychological Resilience

Steps to help build emotional resilience
  1. Practice setting boundaries and being more assertive: Practice saying no when people around you make unrealistic demands or ask for too much.
  2. Stress, pain, and change are  part of life: Acknowledge your pain, know that it will come and go, and that if you take care of yourself, you will survive. Think about what you can and cannot change.
  3. Connect with others: Spending time with loved ones, accepting their support, and talking to them about things that are difficult for us can  help us feel more positive and keep things positive.
  4. Find balance in your life: We all need  a balance between daily tasks, necessary tasks, and enjoyable tasks.
  5. Develop confidence: How do you feel? What does your body feel like? Give your feelings a name. Notice your emotional patterns.
  6. Think about what works for you and  what doesn’t: Allow yourself to be imperfect. Making mistakes is part of a healthy life.
  7. Don’t get discouraged if you “did something wrong”, just keep going: Forgive others for their imperfections.
  8. We can all make mistakes: When you become less critical of yourself, you are better able to extend that grace to others and  allow others to extend the same grace to you.
  9. Take Care of Yourself: Practice self-care. Exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep, be with loved ones, accept and give help, have fun, relax, spend quiet time, avoid excessive alcohol and stimulants. All that is good for us.
  10. Humor, a sense of purpose, love and giving to others, and other spiritual perspectives can also be helpful. 
  11. Be positive. Is there a good side to  bad situations? Look for it.

Future directions for research in the psychology of tragedy

The general consensus is that most people will find a way to cope after losing a spouse or job. And over the past 15 to 20 years, research has supported this idea. Psychologists have studied events as diverse as heart attacks, cancer diagnoses, terrorist attacks, the death of a spouse, military operations, and mass shootings, and have found that even while such traumatic events occur, most concluded that  people are psychologically stable and continue to function.

A study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science presents new findings that challenge the idea that people are generally resilient after traumatic events. Rather, the study found that far more people followed a “recovery path” in which their happiness and life satisfaction decreased before and after the event, but then gradually recovered.

Read more Related Articles

References +
  • Lautieri, A. (2024, February 13). Emotional Resilience: Coping With Life, It’s Tragedies And Its Stresses.
  • Neurobiology of trauma. (n.d.). Assault Survivors Advocacy Program.,such%20as%20calling%20for%20help.
  • Smith, B. (2023, July 21). Why are we so drawn to tragedy? A psychological sciences professor explains. The Daily.
  • The Nature of Tragedy: A psychological essay on JSTOR. (n.d.).

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