Often, those with the strongest reactions can relate in some way to the victims, such as parents contemplating the Texas school shooting on Tuesday and black people hearing the news of the racist murder of 10 people. at a Buffalo grocery store less than two weeks earlier.
But anyone with the ability to empathize may experience anxiety, depression, numbness, despair or even symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, clinicians said.
“It’s not uncommon for people to feel shock, anxiety. . . based on trauma that can occur remotely and has no immediate connection to their lives,” said Amanda Baker, director of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It can be very personal even if it is a distant experience.”
The mass shootings “add fuel to the fire” of uncertainty and fear already rampant amid the pandemic, Baker said.
It’s part of being human, added Dr. Christine Crawford, a psychiatrist at Boston Medical Center. “Your thoughts automatically go to the horror that these children went through. Your mind goes to deep sadness and loss. And you put yourself in that parent’s shoes and think about how you would react and respond,” a- she declared.
“That’s why the weight of these events really has an emotional impact on us. We go through a similar emotional experience, even if we don’t know the person.
But if the person looks like you in some way, you may feel the pain even more intensely, she said. Black people who learn of the Buffalo shooting “remember the level of dangerousness and vulnerability associated with walking in this country with black skin,” Crawford said.
Just hearing about racist incidents can trigger a traumatic reaction, she said.
“Just being repeatedly exposed to these images on television can cause symptoms that resemble those of PTSD,” including irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and intrusive thoughts.
Dr Kevin Simon, a psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said that as a black man, he imagined his parents or grandparents being shot in the supermarket in Buffalo. But even more painful was thinking about her young children when news of the Texas shooting broke.
“You feel it much more viscerally when there’s a connection,” Simon said.
His solution – the one he urges others to adopt – is to talk about it. When he heard the news from Texas, he called his wife. Then he started texting a group of male friends who are also parents.
“You want a space where people can share their emotions and be vulnerable,” Simon said.
Ellen DeVoe, a professor and trauma expert at the Boston University School of Social Work, said mass shootings fuel a sense of uncertainty about what everyday life may bring. “More and more, we’re seeing this happening everywhere,” DeVoe said. “It could happen to any of us.”
“People can get numb. People can develop a sense of outrage but feel like they don’t know what to do,” she said. “What’s helpful is recognizing these reactions – and taking action.”
Just as people feel better when they help rebuild a community after a natural disaster, people troubled by shootings can get involved by speaking out about gun violence, donating to advocacy groups, supporting political candidates and advocating for gun laws.
“Each person has to figure out what’s going to work for them,” DeVoe said. “There is no right action to take.”
Through it all, she warns, “just make sure to take care of yourself and your family, and fight the numbness. It’s the worst thing that can happen, that we all get used to this and we we felt numb and fearful.
Baker, the general psychologist at Mass, said she was urging people to adjust their thoughts, remembering that even now a school shooting in her own neighborhood remains unlikely.
At the same time, she advises, be sure to engage in pleasurable activities and take calming measures, such as meditation or relaxation exercises.
“It’s super important to acknowledge and validate the feelings you’re having” and share them with others, Baker said. “Chances are you’re not the only one feeling this.”
Baker also recommends setting limits on media exposure. You can stay well-informed without constantly scrolling through social media feeds or refreshing media websites, she said. And don’t forget the basics of self-care: get enough sleep, get outside, eat healthy, exercise.
Sometimes closing and withdrawing can be a form of self-care, said Crawford, of Boston Medical Center. Just as a computer running too many programs may need to restart, someone overwhelmed by their emotions may need time to “shut down, reset.” This allows us to operate later.
But, she added, be sure to communicate with those around you why you’re stepping down, especially if you have children who may think it’s their fault.
And there’s another reason to keep talking, Crawford said: “We shouldn’t get used to hearing about these mass shootings, these terrible racist incidents. We should talk openly about how it affects our mental health.