Coping with the trauma of mass shootings includes self-care and support

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As Americans grapple with three major shootings in less than two weeks, many are expressing a combination of fear, anger and resignation that gun violence has now become part of normal life in the United States.

“There’s a sense that this is just part of the collective experience.” It’s scary that it’s becoming normal,” says Kayla M. Johnson, a licensed psychologist in Tomball, Tex. “It happens and we’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ What a shame,’ and two weeks go by and people don’t talk about it anymore, and then it happens again.”

“I had a client who just said, ‘You know, I’m kind of desensitized to this,'” said Steve Alexander Jr., a licensed mental health counselor in Brooklyn. “He said, ‘I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or a good thing.’ “

Michelle Slater, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Jacksonville, Fla., said that in recent years, her clients have expressed feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.

“It’s just one more thing for them to feel that this system isn’t working — that we’re not safe now in our grocery stores or our churches,” she said. “Then, on the flip side, I see a lot of disengagement from that.” How many gun shootings can we mourn in a week? “People are too tired to care.”

Gun violence will likely be a topic of conversation at many holiday tables this Thanksgiving. The recent incidents began with the fatal shooting of three football players at the University of Virginia, allegedly by a fellow student. Then a gunman opened fire at the Club Q gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, killing five. Recently, police said a Walmart employee opened fire on his co-workers, killing six and wounding six others.

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Chesapeake-area residents described tears and “heartbreak” when they spoke to The Post about the Nov. 22 deadly shooting at Walmart. (Video: John Warner, Joy Yee/Washington Post, Photo: Carlos Bernate/Washington Post)

While some dinner guests may think gun violence is the wrong thing to talk about at a celebratory meal, talking about tragedies with family and friends is a good coping strategy, Johnson said.

“I don’t care if it’s a holiday or if it dampens the mood,” she said. “People need to share that they miss their loved one or that they are angry about the state of the world. The only thing we can do is confirm the experience people are having at this point. It’s a real fear and a real sadness that needs to be seen, seen and shared.”

At the same time, if the conversation feels overwhelming, it’s also okay to walk away, said Aaron Mueller, a licensed clinical social worker in Valley Stream, New York. encouraged. to do so,” he said.

One reason recent violent events have had a strong impact on the mental health of many people is that they have occurred in spaces where people typically feel safe, said Pooya Sharma, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California.

The shootings happened at “a club where people go for hookups and a night out, and a store where people go to work and do their pre-holiday shopping,” Sharma said. “When our safe place becomes a place of trauma, we as a society cannot rely on these places to provide safety, resulting in unpredictability, anxiety and confusion.”

Community members, close friends and former employees paid tribute to the five victims who lost their lives in the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs. (Video: Zoën Murphy, Alice Lee/Washington Post)

Therapists note that violent events can be traumatic even for those not directly affected by them, especially for people who have experienced past trauma. And many people haven’t had time to process recent events and may begin to do so over the holiday break.

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Elizabeth Rieger, a licensed social worker in Beavercreek, Ohio, said one of her LGBTQ clients is dealing with trauma after the Club Q shooting.

“She struggles with the fact that she’s been very marginalized in her family for being LGBTQ+ and she’s never been allowed to live her true authentic life,” Rieger said. “Hearing what happened at Club Q is even more traumatic for her because of her life experience.”

Black therapists say they’ve developed an unfortunate expertise in counseling people of color who often don’t feel safe in their communities or public spaces because of police brutality, racism and workplace microaggressions.

Mueller, who specializes in black mental health and well-being, said complex trauma disproportionately affects people of color — not just during national tragedies, but in everyday life as well. “There’s always this hypervigilance, this hyperawareness where maybe you’re not as present, or maybe you just have this constant heaviness,” he said.

Lakeasha Sullivan, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Atlanta, said it’s important for people to feel emotions like despair.

“On the other side of despair is the justified anger and rage of the situation. “These are the emotions that should not be turned off because we can use them constructively,” she said. “Using anger in this way helps us continue to push for change and helps us to strengthen the boundaries around how we allow ourselves and others to be treated.” And that’s the most powerful way to deal with situations of this magnitude.”

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The key, experts say, is to not let those emotions become destructive.

“Allow yourself to feel, but don’t allow yourself to live there.” Develop a plan of action to manage these emotions,” Mueller said.

Several experts say it’s a good idea to take a break from social media and the news during traumatic events. Mueller said distractions like going to a museum or reading a book can help. Sharma suggested exercise, cooking, gardening and listening to music. Prayer, for those who are religious, as well as meditation and seeking support from those close to you, can all help.

“If you’re thinking about something that’s going on in the world and you can’t get that thought out of your head, try to redirect yourself,” Rieger said. “Take a walk. Reach out to people. Pick up a book to help distract you or watch a TV series that will divert your mind from thinking about what you heard on the news this morning.”

A common emotion after tragic events is the feeling of helplessness, experts say. Focusing on things where you have some control can help. Planning for emergencies, noting where to find emergency exits, thinking about how you might protect yourself in unsafe situations are all ways to deal with feelings of powerlessness, Johnson said.

“Creating a sense of control over the situation, knowing where the exits are, gives some sense of control,” she said.

Another way to feel in control is to focus your energy on volunteering and helping your community, Slater said.

“The antidote is altruism,” she said. “We may not be able to stop gun violence across the country, but what can we do in our community to build people up, to fight back, to be a part of something that feels good?”

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