How to Cope with Repetitive Mass Traumas
The largest struggle after a mass shooting is that we want answers now. What people rush to learn is who was the shooter, who dropped the ball (was it their parents, a lack of mental health treatment, the legal system? Were they too medicated or were they not medicated enough? Who was there that didn’t stop the shooter when they had the chance?), what made them do it, and what are we going to do about it?
Those answers are rarely readily available in the days following a tragedy. It takes months, even years for experts to break down the full picture of what happened in the event of a mass shooting. So instead we are fed quick reactive facts to give people some form of understanding in order to comfort them and make us feel some semblance of safety. Particularly in the event of a school shooting, we want to know that there was definitely something wrong with the shooter so that not only can we identify them if we come across one, but also so that we can sleep sound knowing that our teenager isn’t like that. We want a reason so we know what to avoid and then can keep ourselves safe.
Unlike the tragedies in the past, we are seeing traumatic events and feeling a tightness in our chests as we sigh. It is not a sigh of relief, but of absolute exhaustion. We are living in a world that we want to call post-pandemic, while the pandemic hasn’t actually ended. Struggling with very significant laws that may be changing, and other equally significant laws that may never change. There is war in Europe for the first time since WWII, inflation, and African Americans and other minorities are regularly reminded just how unsafe it is to just exist in America. All the while we also struggle to properly process what is happening because many Americans work jobs that keep them too overwhelmed and busy to have energy left over for these feelings.
So how do we cope?
Acknowledge your feelings - This sounds simple, but labeling your feelings can help lessen their impact. There is expected anger and sadness that follows with all of the “never again” statements and knowing that things don’t always get better and instead people just wait for everyone to forget. Googling the Feelings Wheel can help when you’re at a loss for words to label what you feel.
Labeling what you are experiencing - Labeling what you’re experiencing in the moment can give you clarity. Secondary trauma is when we may feel the stress, sometimes physically, after simply hearing about a traumatic event. We also may feel compassion fatigue for what we are learning, this looks a lot like burnout and indifference, seeming numb at times that you feel that you “should care.”
Talk about it - Avoid holding in your distress, talk to safe friends and family about what is on your mind, and how it is affecting you. Having support when you’re distressed can help release some of the stress that you’re struggling with. It can also help you see that you may not alone in some of your concerns.
Turn off the media - This is not to be mistaken for ignoring what is happening in the country and world, but you need mental and emotional space from the content. A number of people struggle with this because it feels privileged and complacent, but there is a difference between being ignorant and passive to tragedy and creating balance for self-care. Learning details and over engaging with articles about an event can become harmful if you’re already distressed, limiting your own emotional capacity to handle more information. Limit your exposure to thirty minutes to an hour a day. As stated above, the real facts of an event take time to come out, you’re not going to miss anything major if you only check the news once or twice a day.
Avoid using substances - Alcohol is a depressant and if you’re already struggling, while we think it relaxes us, it only adds to our low mood. Instead do behaviors to relax such as meditation which includes paced breathing, imagery, and muscle relaxation. Write out what other behaviors that soothe you; for example, journaling, watching a comedy, getting outside, seeing friends, or baking.
Tend to your own self-care - Make sure you’re eating enough, sleeping, getting out to exercise, and not isolating yourself. It can be difficult when you feel that the world isn’t a safe place and you just want to curl up in your feelings, but be sure you’re still taking care of yourself. There could be opportunities coming to help and feel effective in change, but if you’re not taking care of yourself, you won’t have the emotional or physical energy to get involved if that is something you want to do.