Coping with Trauma from Mass Violence
by Crystal Han with Martha McNiel
Over the past few weeks , incidents of mass violence and shootings have grown exponentially across America , adding to the Jenga tower of trauma our nation has become . Each new shooting removes our sense of security , our trust , and our belief that making good decisions will ensure our safety , and adds more grief , fear , anger , and helplessness . How do we cope with so much pain and uncertainty when it feels like we ’ re on the verge of collapse ?
Martha McNiel , director of DreamPower Horsemanship , explained that mass shootings are uniquely traumatizing because they happen without warning in places we ’ re supposed to feel safe : schools , hospitals , churches , grocery stores , public events . How you approach this trauma depends on whether you have personally experienced mass violence or not .
People who are not directly involved in a mass violence incident can still be traumatized from it . They may empathize with the victims or fear that the same thing will happen to them or a loved one . For these individuals , McNiel recommends limiting or removing access to the news and social media . “ Sometimes people are super anxious and they ’ re trying to get a sense of control by getting as much information as they can , and they obsess over learning everything about the event . But that ’ s not usually helpful ,” she said . Fixating on the event just increases anxiety .
Instead , McNiel suggests focusing on self-care , like getting exercise , good sleep , and avoiding caffeine , tobacco , and alcohol , which can increase feelings of anxiety and depression . McNiel emphasizes that exercise , especially the kind that involves rhythmic , repetitive movements like walking , running , or biking , can help calm your nervous system .
People who have personally experienced mass violence should also follow these self-care tips , but McNiel said that they need to pay attention to when the anniversary of the event is , because it will likely be triggering . Anticipating the anniversary and taking steps to address it helps prepare them for the uncomfortable emotions that might arise . “ You might want to commemorate it , or you might just want to run from it . Either one is okay , but you get to decide what you want to do and no one else gets to tell you how to do it ,” she said .
When dealing with trauma , McNiel explained that people generally fall into two camps . There are those who want to ignore their feelings and pour their energy into doing something , like becoming the world ’ s biggest volunteer or activist ; and there are those who want to dwell on their feelings and not do anything about it . McNiel said that people who process their trauma the best are the ones that make a conscious decision to focus on both . This might look like addressing your feelings through therapy or journaling , and then putting those feelings into action by participating in a community event around the time of the anniversary or painting rocks to honor the victims .
Whether you ’ ve been directly or indirectly traumatized by mass violence , McNiel said that it ’ s our connections with other people that help us the most . “ People who feel like they ’ re being supported by family , friends , therapists , and their community will heal more quickly and completely than people who feel unsupported and isolated ,” she explained . That ’ s why it ’ s so important for you to reach out to your support systems in times of crisis .
Helping close friends and family through trauma can be difficult . Many people don ’ t know what to do or say . McNiel said that the most important thing you can do is reach out to them and let them know that you care . This may look like saying , “ I ’ m here . How are you doing ?” or “ What do you need right this moment ?”. “ If a person chooses to talk about their trauma , the main thing is to listen and not interrupt and say , ‘ something similar happened to me .’ Just listen and genuinely let them know that you care ,” McNiel noted .
This is especially important when discussing mass violence with children . A sense of safety and security is paramount to a child ’ s healthy psychological development . “ Parents in today ’ s world are terrified for their children — and rightfully so — but they cannot pass that onto their kids ,” McNiel said . She recommends parents and guardians process their own feelings before discussing mass shootings with children .
Younger kids only need to know that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe . For older kids and teens , ask them what they know about mass violence to make sure they have accurate information , and make a plan as a family . Having a plan of action helps people feel se-
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