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Help for Coping with Emotional Trauma Following a Mass Shooting

By Sharon Boone
February 14, 2023

Another heartbreaking incident, another thunderclap of random violence and senseless death. With the news of yet another mass shooting, many of us have been reeling. And even after the shock of the moment has crystallized into mourning and grief, we may still find ourselves struggling with feelings of fear, despair, even perhaps anger. "Everyone has their own personal reaction, ranging from feeling numb and in a daze to being hypersensitive and flooded with emotions," says Murray Zucker, M.D., a psychiatrist and Twill's chief medical officer. "And all of that is normal."

It's more important than ever to find strategies to help us not only find ways to cope with these powerful emotions, but also to address the trauma these events may have caused.

For people who are especially vulnerable, such as those with PTSD, past traumatic episodes, those struggling with addiction or eating disorders, or previous depression or anxiety, news of mass shootings and other violent events may be triggering, says Zucker.

If recent events have left you feeling like you're in immediate crisis, reach out to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling 988. If you're not in immediate crisis but feel the need to talk to someone, contacting a warmline (as opposed to a hotline) may help.

Ramaris German, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, recommends the following exercise based on CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Firstly, understand that your feelings are valid and what you’re thinking and feeling is a normal response to traumatic situations. To help release tension and decrease anxious feelings, take three deep breaths. This helps to deactivate the “fight or flight” response.

Then, check in with your feelings. What emotions are you feeling? Denial, shock, grief, sadness, loss, anger, fear, anxiety? How intense—0 (not at all) to 10 (extreme)—are these emotions? Are there any thoughts like "Why is this happening?" "Am I safe?" "What do I do now?" or "There’s nothing I can do" that you're associating with these feelings?

Once you have a sense of your thoughts and feelings, decide which are under your control. These are the ones that you may be able to cope with through problem-solving or reframing your thinking. Ask yourself:

“Is this true?”

“Would I be thinking this a week ago, a month ago, 10 years from now?”

“What would a friend tell me if they were trying to help me?”

“What would I tell a friend, if they were also dealing with these thoughts and feelings?”

For those thoughts that are not under your control, practicing self-care, such as taking relaxing baths, lighting scented candles, or spending a little longer drinking your chamomile tea while focusing on your surroundings and taking in nature may help. So could breath work, like box breathing, visualization, and talking to friends. Here are some further suggestions:

  • Embark on a mindfulness or meditation practice
  • Roll out your mat and get back into your yoga practice
  • Start a gratitude journal, or just write out your thoughts and express your feelings
  • Do things that make you feel good or give you a sense of accomplishment. Dust off your recipes and cook a favorite meal, watch a new show you've been meaning to check out (or reruns of an old favorite), go for a long walk in in a park, do that workout video, or schedule a Zoom movie session with friends and make popcorn.

In addition to the above, try to avoid doomscrolling through social media, obsessing over the details of the event, and staying glued to the news. Taking a break from these behaviors can help keep you from getting stuck in a negative spiral. "As much as you can, try to keep up with your usual daily routines for sleep, exercise, and nutrition," says Zucker. "And avoid attempts to numb yourself with alcohol or other substances."

Dealing with Sleep Issues

Many of us may find that getting to sleep or staying asleep is more difficult in the wake of an outbreak of violence. "Negative emotions, poor sleep, disturbing thoughts, and even nightmares can be normal for some time after an upsetting event like a mass shooting," says Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep specialist and Twill's director of DTx product design. "The more connection you feel to the event, the more intense the reaction can be. Most of the time, there is a natural recovery process where you will return to feeling normal."

Minkel suggests the following to help promote natural recovery include the following:

  • Make sure you have support from people in your life. You don't have to discuss the upsetting event directly, but having positive experiences with those you feel close to can help buffer the effects of negative events.
  • Try to get a balanced view of the negative event in context. Be careful not to just read about the atrocity over and over—also read about how people are trying to help and even more general good news about scientific discoveries, uplifting community programs, and smaller positive interactions.
  • Find ways to take positive action related to the negative event. Donate your time, money, or effort to something you believe will make a difference.
  • Create a buffer of at least an hour between when you read about negative events and when you go to bed.
  • If you're having intrusive thoughts while trying to drift off, first, let yourself think negative thoughts, as strange as that might sound. Trying not to think about something tends to create problems. Get up for 20 to 30 minutes so you're not thinking about this while actually in bed. Read a book, listen to music, or flip through old photo albums. Avoid your phone or other electronic devices, which can make it too easy to pop over to a news site and make things worse.

Finally, says Zucker, remember that we are all in this together, and seeking the support of family, friends, and colleagues, joining with others to provide assistance to survivors, or just to grieve can be beneficial. "There's strength in community," says Zucker. "Join activities or reach out to faith-based groups if you find that helpful."

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