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How to Deal With the Tragedy and Trauma of Mass Shootings

277. That’s how many active shooter incidents there have been between 2000 and 2008 that resulted in 884 casualties and 1,546 wounded. In 2019, the FBI designated 28 shootings as active shooter incidents. And, as of this writing, in April 2021, there have already been at least 20 mass shootings across the country from Atlanta to Washington D.C. to Boulder to Orange, CA.

After following a tumultuous 2020 because of COVID-19, continued gun violence is only adding to the grief, shock, and anger we’ve been experiencing. We’re exhausted and afraid. And, for some of us, these tragic events can awaken past trauma.

So, what can be done? Well, here are 7 strategies that both children and adults can use to help you cope and deal with the tragedy and trauma that comes with mass shootings.

1. Don’t ignore your feelings.

“The news of violence and killings presents a shocking breakthrough of the coping mechanisms that we all use to control the fears of living in the world,” says clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. While these feelings are uneasy, you should address them rather than avoidance.

“Becoming desensitized is a coping mechanism. It’s your body’s way of saying it just can’t handle any more tragedy. That coping mechanism may be quite protective and adaptive in the short term, but it may not work very well in the long run,” said Vannessa Rollins, a psychologist in Boulder, CO.

“When you constantly turn off strong emotions, there’s a risk of shutting down in general and losing the ability to experience emotions like joy and deep connection to others,” Rollins said

Express your thoughts through journaling or opening up to trusted friends and family members. And, if you continue to feel worse, don’t hesitate in contacting a mental health professional.

2. Regain a sense of safety.

It’s common for us, escipically children, to feel unsafe following a scary experience -- even if it takes place across the country. As such, Rollins suggests that we take steps to make ourselves feel more secure.

“Establish a safe physical environment for yourself. Maybe that means having your dog sleep in bed with you for a couple of weeks or having a friend or partner close by.’’

And, if you don’t feel comfortable going out in public, that’s also alight. Until you do, stay close to home and consider delivery services for essential items like your groceries.

“There’s no right way to deal with this kind of distress in the short term. Do whatever will help you feel safe again,” she said.

3. Take care of yourself.

Healthy behaviors, like getting enough sleep, physical activity, and eating a well-balanced meal can help enhance your ability to cope with stress. Also, make sure the keep up with your daily routine and make time to do the things that you enjoy as these can be a healthy distraction.

And, make sure to avoid drugs and alcohol as substance abuse just suppresses your feelings.

4. Manage your emotions and physical symptoms of fear.

“A range of emotions from sadness to anger is normal, and it’s also very common to feel that distress in our bodies,” Rollins said. For example, you may have trouble sleeping or eating. And, some people even go through symptoms like muscle tension and a racing heart.

Rollins advises that to help you relax, try breathing exercises, such as the popular 5 by 5 breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation.

5. Limit your media exposure.

While you want you to stay updated and informed, “media portrayals of shootings and mass deaths have been shown to cause acute stress and posttraumatic stress symptoms,” notes the American Counseling Association. Take a break from 24/7 news channels and avoid doomscrolling on social media and other online news sources.

6. Be proactive.

Mass shootings can also make us feel powerless. As opposed to feeling this way, find ways to take action. This could be donating to a victim’s fund or organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety, March For Our Lives, and Moms Demand Action. You should also contact politicians or locate community resources on how you can help others who have been affected by gun violence.

7. Remind yourself of the good in life.

“There’s just as much good happening as well,” says Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT. For example, reading stories about communities or individuals coming together following a tragic mass shooting.

You can also celebrate the positive aspects of your personal life by practicing gratitude.

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