Mental trauma from mass shootings — how do we cope?

Mental trauma from mass shootings — how do we cope?
© Getty Images

With two more mass shootings in the U.S. this past weekend, one in El Paso, and the other in Dayton, it’s hard not to feel horrified, depressed and even fearful. While research indicates that those who directly experience or witness mass violence have the most intense mental health reactions, even those outside the firing range can be impacted. 

In fact, it makes sense for any of us to have intense negative emotions when we hear about senseless killings. That said, in this aftermath, we all need to find healthy ways to harness our energies and stay grounded.   

As a trauma psychologist, I know it’s important to honor our feelings. We need to tell ourselves that intense emotions we may experience after tragic events are normal. As healthy human beings, we should feel for one another, as well as be concerned for our own safety and well-being. If you’re having minor troubles sleeping, difficulties concentrating, or feeling weepy, you’re likely in good company. However, most of us who are remotely affected, should return to baseline functioning relatively quickly.

ADVERTISEMENT

What’s got many of us in an emotional jam, this time, is that the number and frequency of mass shootings seem to be increasing, and little to nothing seems to be done to prevent them from happening the next time. This is when helplessness and hopelessness set in. We’re losing faith that anything will ever change. And, we don’t want to accept that mass violence is a new normal.

A lot of us struggle with deeper meaning and purpose questions after mass violence. Why do these shootings keep happening? What makes someone pull a trigger, and in less than a minute, wipe dozens of person’s lives from the planet? Why didn’t someone see the warning signs in the shooter, and stop the carnage? We may never have 100 percent satisfying answers to these or other questions about human tragedies, especially ones that have to do with gun violence. 

But, we are not powerless. If you are inclined, work for the greater good.  Helping others has reverberating positive effects in our own lives.

Another key predictor of coping well after a traumatic event is having access to and utilizing social support. During troubling times, we want someone to listen to us, and we want to feel heard. If you do not have a strong support network or feel part of a caring community, it’s time to make some investments. Humans are social creatures. We need one another to help with problem-solving, emotional understanding, sharing, normalization of experiences, and mutual learning.

After hearing about or experiencing tragedies, it’s also wise to take good care of ourselves — try to maintain our routines and get the right amounts of food, sleep and exercise. It’s equally important not to engage in unsafe coping. People may turn to alcohol or drugs to help deal with their pain. While this may be effective in the short-run, it only leads to additional difficulties in the long-run.

ADVERTISEMENT

Working with a range of trauma survivors over the past 20 years, I’ve seen how direct exposure to trauma  —being in combat, experiencing a rape, escaping from or watching the former World Trade Center towers fall on 9/11 — can change the way people see themselves, others, and the world. Trauma survivors with resulting residue often see themselves as pathetic and powerless; they see the world as filled with danger, and others as scary or volatile individuals who will exploit or harm. I never ask anyone to take off this dark lens of trauma. Rather I ask them to let me help them wipe their lens and see more clearly, realistically.

Yes, there are times when each one of us is vulnerable. And, yes, there are times when we have difficulties coping effectively. But, this makes us human, not weak. And it is, of course, true that there are unsafe people, places and things. 

But, the clear majority of us are good, caring people. We may not always rise to the occasion to hear one other well, but deep, at the core, there are far more decent people, than dopes and evil. When we allow foreign or domestic terrorists, fear mongering politicians or TV talking heads, to shatter our assumptions in an overall benevolent world, we allow fear and hate to win.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.