Managing anxiety about mass shootings

When a mass shooting happens, it takes over the national news, social media, and everyday conversation. It’s normal and healthy to want to learn about the situation. But watching another mass shooting unfold on the news can spark anxiety and fear for some people.

Some people can develop a “can’t-stop-watching” phenomenon, says Heather Young, CRNP, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at UPMC Williamsport. Being unable to look away can add to mass shooting anxiety.

Anxiety about mass shootings can affect mental health, especially among children. A majority of U.S. teens, and many parents, say they fear a shooting at their schools. That’s according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

Even without the constant news cycle, mass shootings have transformed everyday life. To stay safe, schools conduct active shooter drills. Attending a public event, such as a football game, includes being screened for firearms and other weapons.

So, it’s normal and understandable that people have a heightened sense of awareness around mass shootings, says Young. But all that awareness can also cause some people to feel even more anxious, she says.

Tips for Managing Mass Shooting Anxiety

When mass shooting anxiety interferes with your daily functioning, it’s time to seek help. Young offers these tips to help you process a mass shooting and keep it from affecting your mental health.

Focus on your mental health

Take care of yourself physically and mentally by eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.

Distance yourself from the trauma

Turn off the TV or block social media posts related to the mass shooting. “You start watching it because you want to know what’s going on, but that exposure makes you more distressed. So you have to break that cycle by stepping away from the TV or not watching it for awhile,” says Young.

Remind yourself that mass shootings are rare

Check the facts of mass shootings, says Young. “The news portrays them as very common, but they really aren’t that common,” she says.

According to a report by PBS NewsHour, mass shootings account for less than 1% of all firearm deaths each year. By comparison, 54% of gun-related deaths in the U.S. are suicides, according to the Pew Research Center.

Don’t follow all the details

It’s okay to watch the initial news report, but try to avoid checking in on the situation again until several days later.

During the news cycle following a mass shooting, everybody’s trying to find details and figure out what happens next. The relentless unfolding of the news can get you caught up in following it.

“Some people follow all the little details. And that can build up anxiety over time,” says Young. “If you know you’re really prone to getting stressed about these types of things, limit how much you follow.”

Refocus your anxiety

Instead of feeling helpless by mass shootings, focus on what you can do to help those affected, says Young.

“Ask yourself, what about the situation is making you feel helpless?” says Young. And then look for small ways you can be part of the solution. Some ideas that can help:

  • Giving blood immediately after a mass shooting.
  • Donating to a non-profit to prevent gun violence.
  • Writing to your representative about changing laws.

Set boundaries with family and friends

Real-life social circles may also fuel anxiety and stress related to mass shootings. Young says if friends and family keep bringing it up, tell them how it’s affecting you and ask them to stop.

“It’s okay to say ‘We’ve talked about this. It’s making me really anxious. I don’t want to talk about it anymore,'” says Young.

Practice daily gratitude

“Writing down or even just saying aloud something you’re thankful for each day can help you see things in a more positive light,” says Young. “Identify the things happening around you that are positive.”

Watch for signs of trauma-related PTSD

After a mass shooting, it’s normal to talk or think about the event from time to time. But for some people, the news takes over their thoughts. “When you replay it over and over, and you can’t think of much else or distract yourself from those thoughts, then it becomes a problem,’ says Young.

“If you stop being yourself and stop doing things you normally do then that’s a huge concern,” says Young. “Avoidance of things and situations is a sign of PTSD.”

Watching for signs of trauma is especially important in children, who have different symptoms of anxiety, stress and worry than adults.

“Kids show more physical symptoms when they’re anxious,” says Young. “A lot of them will complain of more headaches, stomach aches, things like that. That’s usually key signs in younger kids that something is going on.”

Teens may appear more withdrawn or isolated. For kids and teens, anxiety and stress can affect their school work.

“When their brain is constantly triggered by stress, the part of our brain that responds to emotion, our amygdala, usually takes over. It then shuts off the part of our brain that can focus and concentrate on things. So, many times kids that are impacted by stress will not be doing well in school because of that,” says Young.

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Helping Children with Mass Shooting Anxiety

Children may hear about the mass shooting from friends or other people. They may stumble across it on social media. So it’s important to talk to your child first, to help them understand, says Young.

“It’s important for parents to bring it up first because they see us as protectors,” says Young. Talking to your children about it also helps them understand why those around them may feel a certain way.

“Kids are often egocentric. It’s not that they only care about themselves. It’s that they only see things from their perspective,” says Young.

To talk to your children about mass shootings, Young offers these tips:

Ask them how they feel

“Don’t assume you know how they feel. See what their thoughts and feelings are, and then start the conversation from there.”

Ask them what they’ve seen or heard about it

“Kids can have a huge imagination and their minds can go wild. And then can have more anxiety about it if you don’t correct those ideas,” says Young.

Leave the lines of communication open

Kids may not want to talk about how they’re feeling right away. “Let them know they can talk to you any time if they start to feel anxious or worried,” says Young.

When Should You Get Help?

Most people process trauma differently. You may not experience symptoms until weeks or months after the mass shooting. How quickly someone will process living through or witnessing a mass shooting depends on many factors.

“There’s no rhyme or reason for how long it takes to heal,” says Young. But there are resources to help you.

If you’ve experienced or witnessed a mass shooting, you need help processing the trauma, says Young. Often right after mass shootings, special mental health crisis teams help those who were there or witnessed the shooting.

“They will come in and give what’s called psychological first aid,” says Young. UPMC has such a team that it sends to gun violence situations and other traumatic events, such as natural disasters.

If you haven’t received mental health crisis support, contact your doctor. They can refer you to a mental health professional who specializes in dealing with traumatic events and PTSD. They can help you reclaim normalcy following a crisis, including mass shootings.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.