HomeHealthMental HealthCoping with the trauma of mass shootings includes self-care and support

Coping with the trauma of mass shootings includes self-care and support


As Americans grapple with three major shootings in less than two weeks, many are expressing a combination of fear, anger and resignation that gun violence has now become part of normal life in the United States.

“There is a sense that this is just part of the collective experience. It’s scary that it’s becoming normal,” says Kayla M. Johnson, a licensed psychologist in Tomball, Texas. “It happens and we’re like, ‘Oh, man. What a shame’, and two weeks go by and people stop talking about it, and then it happens again.”

“I had a client who just told me, ‘You know, I’m kind of desensitized to this,'” says Steve Alexander Jr., a licensed mental health counselor in Brooklyn. “He said, ‘I don’t know if it’s a bad thing or a good thing.’ ”

Michelle Slater, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Jacksonville, Fla., said her clients have expressed a sense of helplessness and powerlessness in recent years.

“It’s one more thing for them to feel that this system isn’t working — that we’re not safe in our supermarkets or our churches right now,” she said. “On the other hand, I see a lot of detachment from it. How many shootings can we mourn in a week? People are too tired to care.”

The scourge of gun violence is likely to be a talking point on many holiday tables this Thanksgiving. The recent incidents started with the fatal shooting of three football players at the University of Virginia, reportedly by a fellow student. Then a shooter opened fire in Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, five dead. More recently, police say a Walmart employee opened fire on his colleagues, killing six and wounding six.

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While some dinner guests may feel that gun violence is the wrong thing to discuss over a celebratory meal, talking about the tragedies with family and friends is a good coping strategy, Johnson said.

“I don’t care if it’s a holiday or if it brings down the mood,” she said. “People have to tell them that they miss their loved one or that they are angry with the state of the world. All we can do is validate the experience people are having right now. It’s real fear and real sadness that needs to be seen and seen and shared.

At the same time, if the conversation feels overwhelming, it’s also okay to walk away, said Arron Muller, a licensed clinical social worker in Valley Stream, NY. to do that,” he said.

One of the reasons recent violent events have had a major impact on many people’s mental health is that they took place in spaces where people typically feel safe, said Pooja Sharma, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California.

The shootings took place at “a club where people go for connection and a night out, and a store where people go to work and shop for the holidays,” Sharma said. “When our safe place becomes the site of trauma, we as a society cannot rely on these places to provide safety, resulting in unpredictable distress and confusion.”

Therapists note that violent events can be traumatic even for those not directly affected by them, especially those who have experienced trauma in the past. And many people have not had time to process recent events, and may begin to do so during the holiday season.

Elizabeth Rieger, a licensed social worker in Beavercreek, Ohio, said one of her LGBTQ clients is dealing with trauma after the Club Q shooting.

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“She struggles with the fact that she was very marginalized in her own family because she was LGBTQ+ and was never allowed to live her real authentic life,” Rieger said. “Hearing about what happened at Club Q feels even more traumatic to her because of her life experience.”

Black therapists say they have developed unfortunate expertise in counseling people of color who often don’t feel safe in their communities or public spaces because of police brutality, racism and micro-aggression in the workplace.

Muller, who specializes in the mental health and wellness of black men, said compound trauma disproportionately affects people of color — not just during national tragedies, but in everyday life. “There’s always this hypervigilance, this hyperawareness where maybe you’re not as present, or you just have this lingering heaviness,” he said.

Lakeasha Sullivan, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Atlanta, said it’s important for people to feel emotions like despair.

“On the other side of desperation is justified anger and rage at the situation. These are the emotions we shouldn’t shut down because we can use them constructively,” she said. “Using anger in this way helps us push for change and set limits on how we allow ourselves and others to be treated. And that is the most powerful way to deal with situations of this magnitude.”

The key, experts say, is not to let those emotions become destructive.

“Allow yourself to feel, but don’t allow yourself to live there. Develop an action plan to manage these emotions,” Muller said.

Several experts said it’s a good idea to take a break from social media and the news during traumatic events. Muller said distractions, such as going to a museum or reading a book, can help. Sharma suggested exercise, cooking, gardening and listening to music. Prayer, for those who are religious, as well as meditation and seeking support from those close to you can all help.

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“If you’re thinking about something going on in the world and you can’t get that thought out of your head, try to bend yourself,” Rieger said. “Go for a walk. Reach out to people. Pick up a book that can help you refocus or watch a TV series that will take your mind off what you heard on the news this morning.”

A common emotion after tragic events is a sense of powerlessness, experts say. Focusing on things you have some control over can help. Planning for emergencies, noting where to find emergency exits, thinking about how to protect yourself in unsafe situations are all ways to cope with your powerlessness, Johnson said.

“Creating a sense of control over a situation, knowing where the exits are, that gives a sense of control,” she said.

Another way to take control is to focus your energy on volunteering and helping your community, Slater said.

“The antidote is altruism,” she said. “We may not be able to stop gun violence across the country, but what can we do in our community to build people up, give back, be a part of something that feels good?”

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