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Coping with Mass Shootings

Everyone reacts to tragedies in different ways, and sometimes you can be surprised by your own reactions.

The purpose of this blog is to help you distinguish healthy from unhealthy reactions to mass shootings as these tragedies continue to occur.

According to the Gun Violence Archive there have been over 250 verified mass shooting in the USA in 2019 alone. These shootings have occurred all over the United States, and with their news and media coverage being as extensive as it is, no one is left wholly unaffected.

Firstly, know that there is no “right” way to respond to a mass shooting.

Whether you feel scared, angry, motivated, or numb, etc., know that you are entitled to feel that way. These are normal reactions, and it is absolutely ok to feel off for a while after something truly terrible happens-- especially depending on how close to home these incidents were.

Secondly, know that healthy and unhealthy reactions are non-binary categories. For example, while anger is usually considered a negative reaction, anger can also be highly motivating. Without anger, fear, and guilt, laws would never change. For these reasons, negative reactions cannot immediately be labeled as “unhealthy.” On the other hand, someone who reacts with joy or amusement (usually considered healthy emotions) might be empathy deficient.

How am I doing?

There are a few simple questions you should ask yourself about a reaction (including your own) to gauge how healthy or unhealthy it was:

  1. How realistic is your perception of your current safety after the event?

  2. For how long after the event are you reacting in a particular way?

  3. Is this reaction interfering with other areas of your daily life (e.g. work, relationships, sleep, diet, etc.) ?

According to the answer to these questions, different levels of support may be appropriate. Someone experiencing some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (a.k.a. PTSD) might answer these questions as follows:

  1. Realistic-- it’s just a fact now that every time you leave home you are putting yourself at risk… I avoid crowded space and events entirely now.

  2. I have been a little jumpy for over a month since the event… A car backfired and I immediately hit the deck… I also feel like I’m just not interested in playing my video games anymore.

  3. Well, I’m waking up in a cold sweat a few times a night, but I don’t remember what I was dreaming about. So I took a few days off work so I could catch up on sleep. My boss told me to lay off the coffee, but I haven’t been drinking anymore than I usually do.

Is this PTSD?

While most people are now familiar with some of the signs and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (a.k.a. PTSD) outlined above-- hypervigilance, nightmares, sleep-disturbance-- when you are the one experiencing these symptoms it can be extremely difficult to recognize when your thoughts are somewhat irrational. That said, don’t be too quick to diagnose yourself with PTSD. In order to qualify for the diagnosis, you have to be at a mass shooting in order for the trauma to be counted. However, you might have something called secondary trauma which refers to an exposure to things like mass shootings on the news rather than in person.

Please Note: If you or someone you know was witness to a traumatic event (including first responders and police officers) you may be at risk for experiencing PTSD, Acute Stress Disorder, or other unhealthy reactions (an extreme fear of public places {i.e. agoraphobia}, or experience panic attacks ), and should seek help from a licensed mental health professional as soon as possible.

Rumination and Other Responses

What if you weren’t there though? The most common unhealthy response, given that most people were not directly impacted by the event, is to ruminate on the news cycles. Rumination is when you obsess on a negative event. This might look like not being able to focus on your work or a conversation, or not being able to take a break from the news coverage because you are so preoccupied with thoughts of the event.

Someone having a healthy reaction to a mass shooting will remain in touch with their actual probability of being victim to an act of domestic terrorism (which is extremely low), they might experience negative affect, but these effects will go away with time, and won’t cause major disruptions to their ability to function in important life domains.

Even someone who has a healthy reaction to a mass shooting serves to benefit from taking many of the same steps that would benefit people having a harder time coping with the event. Furthermore, people in a good position of mental health should take the opportunity to build up the resilience against the inevitable hardships of life.

5 Steps for Your Past, Present, and Future Mental Health

  1. Try to maintain routine sleeping and eating schedules

  2. Create or maintain social ties

  3. Exercise at least 30 minutes a day five days a week (ideally in a workout class or outside)

  4. Download a meditation app (e.g. Calm) and start by practicing 5 minutes a day

  5. Let yourself ask for and accept help when you need it #self-care

Final Comments on the Media Coverage of Mass Shooters

To reduce “copycat” effects, hold your local news stations, as well as social media friends and followers accountable by demoting the sharing of the photos and names of the terrorists. We are all morbidly curious about what kind of human being could do this to innocent people, but this is an impulse we must learn to control for the greater good.

Lastly, you may notice that people latch on to terms like “mental illness,” “crazy,” “psychopath,” etc. when trying to make sense of these tragedies. The truth is many of the people using these terms do not understand what they really mean, or appreciate how much harm their words bring to the thousands of non-violent Americans living with mental illness. No one chooses to be depressed, or anxious, the same way no one chooses to have cancer. Knowing that these people are already suffering, why add to that by making them feel stigmatized?

Free Mental Health Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (1-800-273-8255)

Links to our blog pages on CBT:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

  • The Cognitive Triangle

  • Thought Record

Written by Sophie Wright

Originally published on 08/11/2019

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