We turn on the news each night to stories of tragedy. Hurricanes wiping out people’s homes and life-long memories. People fleeing from forest fires that threaten their safety. Mass shootings taking away innocent lives. In a world with news at our fingertips 24 hours a day, the constant influx of violence and tragedy can be devastating to our spirit. If we are not careful, we can become so overcome that it can lead to sadness and anxiety.
In a story in the Washington Post a little over two years ago, Political Scientist Shana Gadarian noted, “Media competition means that journalists and editors have incentives to use emotionally powerful visuals and story lines to gain and maintain ever-shrinking news audiences.”
But what effect can all of this have on our own mental health? According to British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, exposure to violence through the media can either intensify or trigger stress, anxiety, depression and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder.
We can find ourselves feeling helpless and wondering what we can do to help those who may be thousands of miles away from us. Our minds automatically go to monetary help, but one does not have to have an excess of disposable income to make a difference. And the beauty of it is that it not only benefits those who we set out to help but also blesses those who contribute.
Getting involved and giving back
While much of the tragedy that has recently taken place is distant from our own backyard, it is a perfect opportunity to teach our children the importance of giving back to others.
While we often talk about the importance of giving and being thankful for our blessings around the holidays, it is a lesson we can all put into action year round. And what better time to start than this holiday season?
Be selective on what your child sees on the news, as you do not want to instill fear in them. Share the positive stories of heroism; people taking boats and trucks door to door to help evacuate some of the hurricane victims; total strangers helping families go through the rubble after a wildfire or flooding has taken their home. Then share with your child or children how they, too, can be an everyday hero.
Kids identify most closely with money. They stock their piggy banks only to empty them out and count how much money it will take to buy their new favorite toy. When donating money, remember to give to reputable organizations and remember, every little bit helps.
Children and families do not always have to give their own money; they can hold fundraisers that will bring the community together to help collect donations of money and items. Fundraisers can be a big undertaking, so maybe partner with a school or church and make it a community event!
Approach the fundraiser thoughtfully, keeping in mind what the goal is. Is it an opportunity to collect toys for those children who lost theirs due to a natural disaster? Are you collecting money for a food bank to help with those who need it? Do those whom you seek to help need clothing?
If you want to keep your fundraiser on a smaller scale and witness firsthand the impact your donations are making, consider adopting a family. You may even find you’ll make some new friends along the way.
As adults, there are many ways we can help depending upon time and talent. During the recent Las Vegas shooting, the greatest need was the donation of blood. While one can pray that a tragedy like this never happens again, much less in our own communities, we can do our part to help in even the smallest of circumstances. Donating blood does not cost anything and can ultimately give someone the greatest gift of all—the gift of life.
Another way that teens and adults can help is through mission trips to the areas that were impacted by the hurricanes or other natural disasters. For years after Hurricane Katrina, people flocked to New Orleans to help rebuild homes and lives. They will be doing the same after the impact of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
My son was 14 when he traveled with a local church group to help the families devastated by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I was thrilled as he described his trip with such great enthusiasm. He found so much joy in connecting with people and helping them out in their time of need. It was definitely a life-changing event for him.
If you are interested in such a trip, check with local churches and community groups, such as Rotary, to see if there are any planned trips to help out. Often times, they will have sponsors for the trip so the cost to you is minimal, and the reward is great!
Altruism displayed in many ways
The benefits of giving back to others not only gives one a good feeling emotionally, but it is reported that altruistic behavior actually promotes positive physiological changes in the brain that are associated with happiness. In fact, when we give to others, our body releases endorphins that help activate areas of the brain associated with trust, pleasure and social connection.
In addition, when we help those in need, it can provide perspective on our own daily lives. Those things that may have been a source of stress for you may not seem so bad after witnessing the losses that others have experienced.
In a 1996 study, evidence showed that altruistic behavior can actually help boost our physical health through helping to stabilize our immune system against immunosuppressing effects of stress. And those endorphins that are released are also a natural painkiller. It’s a win-win for everyone!
What does it mean to be altruistic?
There are many behaviors that can be defined as altruistic, and the best part is that they are easy to implement into our daily lives.
Generosity: Being generous can be a simple act such as helping a neighbor with lawn care or snow shoveling. Offer your talents to help someone in need. Are you handy around the house? Check out your local Habitat for Humanity to see what you can do to help a family building a new home. Do you love to cook? Offer to bring a meal to someone who may be struggling financially or emotionally. A little bit of generosity can change how we perceive others and can help bring joy to others at the same time.
Kindness: Have you ever heard someone tell you that if you smile when you speak to someone on the phone, they can “hear” that smile on the other end? We all have good and bad days, but a smile and a kind gesture can go a long way to brightening someone else’s day as well as your own.
Compassion: Being compassionate requires a willingness and ability to enter into the feelings and experiences of others. For people who are seeking to provide compassion, the greatest thing one can do is to simply be with that person and listen to and validate their feelings. Remember to keep your own wellbeing in check as well. It is easy to become overwhelmed with another’s problems, so maintain your own emotional, physical and spiritual health.
Volunteering: Giving back to others through donations of our time and talent is beneficial to not only those who volunteer but also the community they serve. It is also a wonderful way to connect with people, leading to new relationships that will hopefully be a blessing to us for years to come.
Providing rest for the weary
It was just three years ago when Scott Smalling was first inspired to form his nonprofit, Relief Bed International. A Gig Harbor, Washington, native and longtime mattress-industry businessman, Smalling hit the ground running and has been making a dramatic impact on the lives of those in need ever since.
Relief Bed International was first launched in September of 2015 and provides innovative beds to help the poor and homeless as well as those who are victims of disasters. While their reach is worldwide, they have a special focus on the homelessness in North America.
“My original concept after creating our product was to work primarily with international relief agencies like World Vision,” said Smalling. “Although after only two to three months, I was very intrigued by the homeless plight in the U.S.”
The natural disasters that have taken place in the last few months have certainly kept Smalling busy. “We have distributed 1,200 relief beds to victims of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, the Santa Rosa fires and the earthquake in Mexico,” he said. “It is unprecedented to have this many natural disasters in North America in such a short amount of time.”
Although Smalling has been in the field distributing beds on many occasions, this time he stayed at his headquarters and did what he could to keep up with the demand. His beds are distributed through non-governmental organizations, which are nonprofit voluntary groups that are organized either at a local, national or international level.
And while Relief Bed International has worked hard on doing what they can to assist the victims of the recent natural disasters, they also are busy each and every day working to provide the homeless with a comfortable bed to sleep on.
Relief Bed International is funded approximately 30 percent by individual donations, and 50 percent of the donations are self-funding from Smalling’s for-profit business. “The other 20 percent comes from various places such as corporate donations,” said Smalling, adding that by going onto his website, ReliefBed.com, one can donate online. Since the beginning of 2016, Relief Bed International has donated more than 9,000 beds worldwide, and the need continues to grow.
Smalling is grateful for the opportunity to serve others. “It’s a gift to be able to give,” he said, taking much of his philosophy from the Bible 1 Peter 4:10 which reads, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
As we enter this holiday season of festive celebrations and parties, let’s each of us also think about how blessed we truly are and consider sharing some of our gifts, whether it is time, talent or financial, with others who are hurting. The feeling you receive will be the greatest gift of all.