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Coping with Mass Shootings

It is important to remember that in any city or town, mass shootings are rare, even if they are highly visible occurrences that receive national attention. Most people will never experience one directly. However, when they do happen they are shocking and can be difficult to cope with. This is because they feel random and happen in places you consider safe like schools, offices, malls, movie theaters, restaurants—even military installations.

If you are affected by a mass shooting you may experience:

  • Fear or anxiety
  • Shock/terror
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness
  • Feelings of guilt or self-blame
  • Feelings of hopelessness/helplessness
  • Nightmares and trouble sleeping
  • Hypervigilance
  • Intrusive thoughts/memories
  • Emotional numbing
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Difficulties with relationships

It is important to keep in mind that all of these “symptoms” are completely normal and even expected in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting. While most resolve over the first few days, some may linger for weeks or months. This is also normal. However, many people find relief and comfort in talking about their thoughts and feelings related to these types of events. Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to seek help from friends, family, spiritual advisors or mental health professionals. People who talk about traumatic events have better outcomes.

Secondary Trauma

Even if you weren’t physically present, you may experience stress following a mass shooting. This is especially true if you have been in a similar situation before, or someone you care about was close to or affected by the shooting. Exposure to details via the news or social media may also cause distress. This is called secondary trauma.

You may think that if a shooting happened at one school or office, it could just as easily happen at another where you, your friends or family spend time. Don’t downplay your feelings, but do limit disturbing television and social media exposure following traumatic events. You should also talk to others about your concerns.

Supporting Your Health

Many factors can influence your reaction to a traumatic event. In the case of a mass shooting, how close were you? Were you or someone you know injured? Have you experienced a traumatic even already in your life? Do you have a lot of other stressors like work or family to deal with?

The following are important ways to support your health and manage any ongoing concerns:

  • Stay connected to friends and family. Social support helps you cope with stressful situations. Also, talking about the event with others will help you better come to terms with what happened and process it in healthy ways.
  • Maintain or develop feelings of gratitude and a sense of resilience. Focus on things that you are thankful for. Have confidence that you can bounce back.
  • Avoid substance misuse. Substances may seem to give you comfort or an escape, but they can lead to psychological or physical health concerns.
  • Consult a spiritual advisor. Many people find comfort in spiritual guidance.
  • Talk to a health care professional. It is important to understand your thoughts and feelings, and to face them. Don’t avoid them. A psychological health care professional can guide you through this process.

Helping Children Cope

Caring for children after a mass shooting, whether they are directly involved or exposed to second-hand accounts, takes special consideration. These may depend on their age. A very young child in kindergarten, for example, may struggle with the sense that they did something to cause a bad event. Older teenagers may engage in risky behaviors like substance misuse. Fortunately, there are resources to help you and your child cope with a traumatic event together.

Reaching out is a sign of strength. If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants. Call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also visit our “24/7 Resources” page to see a list of key psychological health resources.

Additional Resources:

Sources:

American Psychological Association. (2017). APA Resources for Coping with Mass Shootings, Understanding Gun Violence.

Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. (n.d.). Coping with stress following a mass shooting.

Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. (n.d.). Preparing, responding and coping with the stress of mass shootings.

Day, K. W., Lawson, G., Burge, P. (2015). “Clinicians’ Experiences of Shared Trauma After the Shootings at Virginia Tech.” Journal of Counseling & Development. 95, 269-278. doi: 10.1002/jcad.12141

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2017). Quick look: 220 active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000-2016.

Jensen, T. K., Thoresen, S., Dyb, G. (2015). “Coping responses in the midst of terror: the July 22 terror attack at Utøya Island in Norway.” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 56, 45–52 doi: 10.1111/sjop.12182

Lower, S. R., Galea, S. (2017). “The mental health consequences of mass shootings.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. 18(1), 62-82. doi: 10.1177/1524838015591572

Mancini, A. D., Littleton, H. L.,  Grills, A. E. (2015). “Can people benefit from acute stress? Social support, psychological improvement, and resilience after the Virginia Tech campus shootings.” Clinical Psychological Science. 4(3), 401-417. doi: 10.1177/2167702615601001

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2017). 2016 fatal motor vehicle crashes: Overview.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Coping Tips for Traumatic Events and Disasters.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). The Impact of Disaster and Mass Violence Events on Mental Health.

 

Last Updated: June 24, 2021

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