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Managing Anxiety After a Mass Shooting

How to cope with the stress and uncertainty of tragedy

Michael Schütze/Adobe Stock
Source: Michael Schütze/Adobe Stock

By Anthony Charuvastra, MD

After national tragedies—such as the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, we all walk around in a world that is materially the same for the majority of us, but psychologically altered. There are still the same necessary routines: making breakfast, getting the kids to school, riding the train to work. Yet we go through them with a new awareness of our own vulnerability.

In climates of fear, life is more difficult for everyone. Children have trouble playing, adults can find it hard to be loving, and workers are distracted by their anxieties. Fear is bad for body and soul. So, even though it may seem difficult, finding a way to feel safe is essential to living well and thriving.

Here are five things you can do to cope after a national tragedy:

Get in touch with reality. Intense fear and horror make us lose perspective, and suddenly we expect disaster at every turn. Taking a step back from our fear and trying to think about what we know (what therapists call "cognitive reframing") can help ease our fears, at least a little bit.

For example, in spite of terrible events—such as those in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012—schools are actually among the safest places for children to be, and the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. After Newtown, one expert recommended balancing each "worried thought" with a "brave thought" to manage anxiety. As parents who hopefully have the wisdom that comes with age and experience, we can help our children find a brave thought for each fearful thought.

Find safety in numbers. Results from decades of experimental research reveal that as social creatures, the more alone we feel the more afraid we are. Reminding yourself of the people you can trust will help you feel safer in your community.

Help others. Events are traumatic because they destroy our social fabric and disorder our expectations of the world. Giving to others helps strengthen the order in the world through good acts. As Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi recognized, altruism is a kind of antidote to hatred and evil.

Manage your exposure exposure to the media so that you can stay as informed as you want without becoming overwhelmed with anxiety and stress. That will also help you be a filter for your children.

Learn to live with fearful events and not in spite of them. This final recommendation to feeling safer is perhaps the hardest to achieve. As we work to understand tragic events, eventually we may be able to accept that terrible, unpredictable, and unpreventable things do occur and could happen to any of us. And despite that dreadful knowledge, we must make every effort to live our lives better, to love better, and to cherish every day we are given. There is great comfort in that.

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