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Managing Anxiety in the Era of Mass Shootings

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistAugust 06, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

Once again our headlines are saturated with news of mass shootings. What used to be a relatively rare event has become a regular occurrence in cities and neighborhoods across the country.

Each shooters’ choice of weapons and alleged motives may vary, but their acts are always impossible to comprehend. How are human beings capable of something so heinous? And what can our society do to make these atrocities stop?

The collective response to these acts has now become predictable. There will be mass outrage on Facebook and Twitter. Our politicians will fan the outrage while maintaining the gridlock. And then, after a few days, the furor will die down … until the next time.

After having gone through this horrible cycle time and again, it’s easy to feel afraid and hopeless that any meaningful change will happen.

If you’re dealing with upsetting emotions related to these ongoing shootings, please know that you’re not alone. Research suggests that even those exposed indirectly to violent shootings often feel threatened and afraid. Consider the following ways to manage your distress after events like these.

Lead with love.

When we witness violent acts fueled by hatred, it’s easy to respond with fear and anger. We often direct our anger and hatred at those who disagree with our political viewpoint about these events, and take to social media to air our opinions. Maybe some find it cathartic to do so.  

And yet I have to wonder what it would be like if, instead, each of us resolved to prioritize love in the wake of mass shootings—not a naïve love that pretends nothing is wrong, but a tenacious love that won’t be extinguished by demonstrations of hate.

You can express love in all kinds of ways, in line with who you are. For some that might mean giving money to charitable causes, like ones that serve those seeking asylum in our country or that advocate for better mental health care. For others it could involve volunteering in their church’s food pantry. You might donate to a relief fund for the families of the shooting victims (usually fairly easy to find with a Google search).

You could even think of something nice to do for someone you’ve argued with in the past about gun violence, like posting a kind note on their Facebook wall. While we can’t undo bad things that happen, we can be a force for good at these trying times.

There is a time for debate about how best to prevent future mass shootings, and there’s value in a vigorous national dialogue about the relevant issues. Perhaps it’s possible for love to be at the heart of that dialogue, instead of mutual mistrust and blame. When we determine to show love, we resist the impulse to hate, which only adds to the toll from these senseless acts. And when we lead with love, we have less to fear.

Draw closer to the people you care about.

Sometimes our impulse in the face of tragedy and confusion is to shut down emotionally and to withdraw from those we love. But we need close connections to our loved ones now more than ever. Look for ways to enjoy meaningful times together over the coming days. Share a meal. Go for a walk. Collaborate on a project. Laugh together. Allow these events to remind you of all that is good about sharing life and love.  

Turn off the news.

News reports about the most recent shootings always fill the headlines for several days. Following the updates can take up hours of your time. There will be stories about the victims, the survivors, the shooters and their possible motives. I recommend limiting your consumption of these stories, which often are repetitive and speculative, and provoke more emotion than understanding.

I’m reminded of the terrorist attacks of 2001, when we sat glued to our television screens as we tried to make sense of what had happened to our country. Unanswered questions gripped our minds. Why did this happen? How many lives were lost? Would our own city be attacked?

Eventually we realized that there was living to be done as the stories continued to unfold. I’m not saying to ignore what’s happening in our country, but to balance being an informed citizen with engaging in the rest of life.

Continue to live your life.

Fear can cause our worlds to shrink, sometimes in subtle ways we’re barely aware of. For example, we might avoid going to a concert because of a shooting like the one at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Nevada in 2017. The fear can be particularly strong when it involves those we care about, perhaps especially children. Personally I’ve felt real fear about sending our young kids to school, with the specter of Newtown, CT, in my mind.

To avoid places where mass shootings have occurred would mean staying away from shopping malls, places of worship, elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities, restaurants, municipal buildings, department stores, bowling alleys, hospitals, bars, night clubs, yoga studios, UPS facilities—the list goes on.

While the probability that you or I will be directly affected by a mass shooting is extremely low, the possibility exists for all of us. The sad fact is that we simply can’t avoid places where shootings could occur. They’re unpredictable and seemingly uncontrollable, and can happen anywhere and to anyone.

Unfortunately fear grows when we design our lives around it. If we stop going to the grocery store at certain times of day, for example, then eventually even those times will start to feel unsafe. If we avoid flying, chances are we’ll also stop taking trains at some point. Avoidance leads to more avoidance.  

Rather than giving in to fear, resolve to live your life, while taking whatever precautions are reasonable. Practice courage by moving through your fear.  

Open to uncertainty.

The key to living in an uncertain world where terrible things happen is to embrace the uncertainty. It’s unavoidable. Not only is it part of life, but it’s what makes life so precious. Our loved ones are dear to us because we know at some point we’ll lose them, or they’ll lose us. Our life together will end.

In the same way, the value of our own lives is underscored by the fact that they’re finite, and that how and when we’ll meet our end is unknown. Your appearance on this planet was never guaranteed, and each day—each moment, even—could be our last. While that situation could be cause for terror, it’s also cause for celebration.

We’re still alive. Still breathing. Still witness to the sublime beauty and unspeakable tragedy that is the human experience. Right now, it’s yours. Open to all of it.

If you’re experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other forms of distress, contact your doctor or a mental health professional. You can also call the national SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727) for general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area. Live representatives are available Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM Eastern time.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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