These past few weeks, as our nation took in the awful, heart-wrenching news of three back-to-back mass shootings – first at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, then at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, then in Dayton, Ohio – I watched my anxiety spike so high I woke several times in a panicked sweat. I found myself wanting to avoid public places, especially places where crowds congregate.
I know I am not alone. Far from it. The past weeks have left nearly all of us on edge.
Whenever I'm in a public space, I think about what would happen if a mass shooting broke out. It's a constant, low-level anxiety that follows me everywhere. I wonder if it's just me. I don't think it is.
— Geraldine (@everywhereist) August 3, 2019
I think most of us feel this way after a high-profile mass shooting, but there is something about recent shootings in particular that seems to be putting everyone’s fight-or-flight systems on overdrive.
Maybe it’s the sheer number of shootings in a row, the fact that for years these shootings have not freaking stopped, or that we have people in power in our country who seem entirely unwilling to do anything to stop them.
I don’t know, but if you are like me, you are probably feeling like your anxiety is out of control right now.
As someone who has anxiety and panic disorder, I almost expect these sorts of feelings. In fact, I’ve had a fear of mass shootings since way back when in 1984, when I was six years old and learned about the mass shooting at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California that shook the country and left 21 people dead (it still ranks among the top 10 deadliest mass shootings in America).
And that was way before mass shootings were as frequent or as deadly as they are these days – before cable news and social media were covering these tragedies on a 24-hour loop.
It’s important for us to witness these things so that we can do everything in our power to make mass shootings a thing of the past. But it can really take a toll on our nervous systems, especially if we are prone to anxiety and panic in the first place.
If you are feeling an increase in panic or anxiety, know that this is totally normal, and that there is nothing wrong with feeling this way. I mean, how could anyone not feel at least a little more on edge after what has happened recently?
However, just because these feelings are a normal reaction to our current state of affairs, it doesn’t mean we should just sit back and let the feelings of utter terror dominate our lives and make us feel unable to function normally. That’s no way to live.
So let’s talk about what we can do to manage our fears surrounding mass shootings. Note that all of these pointers – inspired by the American Psychological Association’s tips for managing stress after mass shootings – can be applied to kids as well. As someone who developed a mass shooting phobia as a child, I can say without a doubt that our kids need as much TLC right now as we do.
1. Talk About It
Seek out a loved one who will listen to your feelings without judgment, and then just talk. Spill out your thoughts, fears, your “worst case scenario” imaginings. Just getting these things out of you head and into the open will help you sleep and breathe a little better.
2. Take A Break From The News
Like it or not, we are all a little addicted to the feeling of being constantly plugged in to what is happening in the news. We feel like if we don’t look at our phones for an hour or two, we’ll miss something important. But the constant onslaught of terrible news can take a toll, and lead to through-the-roof anxiety. Take a day or two “media fast.” You will feel so much better.
3. Channel Your Anxiety Into Positive Change
It’s a small thing, but whenever there is a national tragedy like a mass shooting – especially in instances where it feels important for our elected officials to act to protect us from further harm – I find it therapeutic to get on the phone and call my local reps. Or I send them an email spilling out my thoughts, feelings, and hopes for change.
In the case of mass shootings, you can join or donate to organizations like the Sandy Hook Promise or Moms Demand Action. Check out our powerful interview with Diane Rinaldo of Moms Demand Action for information on how to work for change.
If the shooting happened near you, you can donate blood or offer the help to on-the-ground organizations that are tending to attack survivors.
These things not only serve to better our world, but it can be really helpful to put all that anxious energy into something positive and helpful.
4. Feel Your Feelings
Honor your feelings. Don’t try to push them away. Sometimes we are sent the message that if we give into our feelings of fear or anxiety when it comes to events like mass shootings, we are somehow letting the perpetuators of evil “win.” And while we certainly don’t want to be so overcome with anxiety that we become unable to function, there is nothing as courageous and strong as letting yourself feel your feelings – whatever they are.
Pushing our feelings aside and putting on a brave face when we don’t feel that way inside is more damaging than we might realize. This is how people develop more severe anxiety, PTSD, and other serious mental health disorders.
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5. Seek Professional Help
It’s normal to be extra anxious and “on alert” for a few days following a scary event like a mass shooting. But if your feelings are making it difficult to perform normal tasks, or if these feelings are lasting longer than a week or two, it’s time to get some professional help. Seek counseling or therapy (here are some low-cost therapy options) or talk to your doctor about medication options. Events like mass shootings can be very triggering, especially if you suffer from an anxiety disorder to begin with, so make sure to take care of you.
Beyond all that, it’s important to keep things in perspective. You are much more likely to die of heart disease (the leading cause of death), the flu, or in an car accident than you are of dying in a mass shooting. This isn’t to minimize the seriousness of mass shootings at all. Mass shooting are among the 48 top causes of death among Americans. But they are still relatively rare, with each of us having 1 in 11,125 chance of dying in a mass shooting.
It makes sense to stay on alert, but we can’t let this fear rule our existence. We all deserve to live full and happy lives despite the fact that scary shit seems literally everywhere lately.
So talk about your feelings, remember that fear and anxiety after a mass shooting are normal and real, and then take some time to unplug. Hug your kids nice and close, and take some deep, long, exhales. It’s going to be okay.