I feel helpless and heartbroken watching the news about the latest school shooting. I watch from the living room of our home in a quiet suburb in Virginia, where we moved last year after multiple shootings in the alleyway of our beloved rowhouse in NW DC traumatized us into searching for a safer place to live. A place where we could sleep more peacefully at night and raise our family without worrying about the sound of gunshots. And yet as I kiss my daughter goodnight, I am quietly crying for all the mothers whose little ones never came home yesterday.
I feel helpless because I can’t solve the massive problems our country keeps ignoring. But I can do my part. I can donate, protest, and vote. And I can offer the one thing I know how to do to directly help people, which is to use my knowledge as a mental health provider to ease suffering. So here is what I can share with you as we all process these tragic shootings and this collective trauma… knowing that this advice is tending to wounds but not ending the war.
Whatever emotions you are experiencing, or not experiencing, it’s okay and understandable. Events like this can bring up all sorts of fears, memories, defenses, emotions. Let yourself feel it. Do you feel angry? Sad? Numb? Scared? Overwhelmed? All of the above? Here are some ways to help yourself process those feelings:
If you’re enraged at the shooter, at the politicians, at the gun lobby, at the current state of our country in general: GOOD. this is a healthy reaction, even if it’s very uncomfortable. It’s the “fight” of your fight-or-flight instinct kicking in, wanting to react to a visible threat to our safety, and further aggravated by a small number of people in government who are standing in the way of protecting our children. Do not waste this feeling, use it to take action. Imagine getting pumped up in the locker room to compete in a tournament, and feeling all that adrenaline in your body as you run out onto the field in a packed arena; you don’t just sit down on the bench and scroll through social media! You get out on the field and use that adrenaline to strive for a victory. Write down 2 actions you can take that would help end gun violence and then go get started on them. Write to your local elected officials, make sure you and your friends and family are all registered to vote, donate to orgs like Everytown, find an opportunity to get involved in a grassroots movement, whatever you can think of. Then use physical exercise to use up more of the adrenaline as needed. Remind yourself your anger is valid and put it to good use- this will both soothe your anger, and contribute to helping larger scale problems. If you’re angry, you will find peace through using the anger productively, not trying to quiet it.
Of course you feel sad! I had a client say to me, “I don’t know why I’m crying- it’s not like I knew those people.” I see it as a reassuring sign of empathy and compassion, and a genuine experience of pain. Grief is evidence that you have love that you lost or are afraid of losing. Let yourself feel it without judgment, and allow yourself to cry, talk about it, journal, paint, walk and think about it, or process with a therapist. There is a train of thought that we should not take medication for a fever because it is the body’s way of fighting off infection; that in spite of discomfort it can help to sweat it out, let it run its course, and your body will heal itself and improve its immune response in doing so. Can you see where I’m going with this? Our bodies and brains were made to be able to process trauma; let the sadness and grief run their course. Be gentle with yourself and get extra rest, use comfort measures like cuddles and a night in watching tv, but let the feelings come out.
If you aren’t feeling much of an emotional response, and/or you’re avoiding the news coverage, this is a normal response that makes sense and is nothing to be ashamed of. Your brain has a built-in freeze response, natural and unconscious defense mechanisms to shut off or hide from discomfort that could be painful or overwhelming. Our brains don’t trust us to be able to handle news that is this horrifying. The important thing here is to recognize that this response is a defense, not an authentic response to what is happening- you of course have compassion for the victims and their families, the numbness is a defense not your identity. We don’t want to tear down our internal defenses and flood ourselves with pain; but we feel more connected, more whole, and more ourselves when we are in tune with our true emotions. See if you can allow yourself to tune inward, by closing your eyes and taking deep breaths and simply noticing what emotions come up as you think about the news, or by journaling, painting, or simply talking more vulnerably about what happened. It will be uncomfortable, and it will also allow you to feel your truth and heal whatever needs healing.
This is the other side of the fight-or-flight reaction. Our survival responses kick in when we hear about something terrifying – feeling terrified makes sense and the feeling is meant to motivate us to seek safety. It causes anxiety, because we cannot be certain of our safety or do anything directly or immediately to eliminate the threat of mass shootings. We can, however, validate our feelings as a natural human response, we can be compassionate towards ourselves the way we would comfort a child who is scared of the dark (after all, that fear is hard-wired from evolution to protect us- darkness means we cannot see predators). Just as using a night-light increases sense of safety, we can choose measures to increase our real and felt sense of safety. We can be aware of our surroundings, report suspicious activity, move to areas with low crime rates if we have the privilege to be able to do so; and we can use coping skills to soothe ourselves, to allow fear which is reasonable but reduce anxiety which causes suffering. We can seek out extra hugs, take deep breaths with a hand pressed against our chest, follow a guided meditation on youtube (search for grounding guided meditations), or do yoga to help physically process the emotion and ground ourselves back into our present. Since we cannot believe we’re entirely safe, we can reassure ourselves by saying statements that feel more true, like “I am more safe than unsafe,” or “I am taking steps to help make myself and others safer.”
If you are feeling flooded with distress about what happened – perhaps you were directly impacted, or a traumatic memory was triggered – then you will want to carefully tend to your feelings right now. I mentioned that letting a fever run its course can be helpful; but there are limits to that, and times when medication or expert care are needed to prevent damage or unnecessary suffering if the fever or infection become intense or dangerous. We have to know when our normal levels of fear, sadness, anger, or numbness are approaching or crossing a boundary. When fear approaches panic, or sadness approaches depression, anger produces rage, or numbness causes dissociation. When emotions are growing in intensity or flooding our bodies, when thoughts become intrusive, my advice is to soothe (using the coping skills I mentioned in the sections above), take breaks from feeling the feelings (using distractions and physical movement), do grounding exercises (check in with your 5 senses), and seek social or professional support.
Whatever you are feeling – maybe a bit of all of the above feelings – know that you are not alone in feeling that way. Talk with your friends and family about how you’re experiencing what is going on, talk about how you want to take action, connect and soothe each other and think of solutions, resist the urge to retreat from the feelings and from the problem that is too large for any of us to solve, yet solvable if all of it insist upon it.