One Psychologist's Advice for Coping After a National Tragedy

One Psychologist's Advice for Coping After a National Tragedy

News of a mass killing can be traumatic—even if you aren't directly involved.

The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14 has devastated the nation. As we watch a community grieve and come to grips with their current reality, we’re left with feelings of sadness and hopelessness—and we may fear that another tragic event is looming. In fact, a Gallup poll conducted in October 2017 found that nearly 4 in 10 Americans are "somewhat" or "very" worried that they or someone they love will become a victim of a mass shooting.

If fear has been dominating your thoughts, the key to dealing with it may be changing the way you perceive it. “I’m an advocate for anxiety and I think we need to think about it differently,” says Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in anxiety issues in Washington, DC, and a professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “Anxiety can be a powerful tool in focusing our attention on what we care about.”

Here, Dr. Clark offers five steps for managing your anxiety.

Step 1: Know that your reaction is normal
It is “absolutely” understandable to feel disturbed after a tragedy. “This is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances,” emphasizes Clark. “The job of terrorism, in general, is to engender anxiety and fears.” And just knowing this information may begin to slowly put the brakes on your ongoing stress. “When we worry about anxiety, it escalates it, yet when we can think about ourselves as normal, we don’t worry what is happening as much.”

Step 2: Name your emotions
Whether you choose to jot down your thoughts in a journal or discuss them with a trusted friend, relative or professional, Clark says addressing your feelings is another important step to conquering them. “Naming your emotions—afraid, upset, grieving, angry—is an outlet, and research shows that it actually helps us control our emotions,” she explains. “There’s an old saying: ‘Name it and tame it.’ And this action can be very helpful in getting your mind activated to decide, ‘Now what am I going to do with this?’”

Step 3: Remember knowledge is power
If you find yourself overly worried about an unspeakable act occurring when you’re in your home or when you and your family are at work, school or another public place, Clark says to remember the phrase she shares with her clients—the probability versus the possibility. “It’s possible that something can happen, but the probability is highly unlikely,” she states. She also advises you to research the statistics of the likelihood of your fear coming to life. “It can be very empowering to know that chances are very slim that a tragedy can happen—and this is really important when we try to figure out a healthy amount of anxiety versus anxiety that is spinning us into irrational fear.”

Step 4: Be proactive
Clark stresses that taking positive actions—such as being more vigilant, creating a family safety plan, asking how your schools are protected, contacting your representatives or supporting non-profit organizations—can also help diminish your fears. “As much as anxiety helps us focus, it’s also energy and it’s best when it’s discharged,” she states. “When people use their anxiety to solve what is bothering them, that is when the anxiety stops.”

Step 5: Limit common causes of distress
While Clark is in favor of researching a topic and becoming a more responsible citizen, be mindful of inundating yourself with information and activities. “If you’ve been doing anything for any length of time—worst of all, watching something that is overstimulating you in ways that you’re not even aware of—it becomes really hard to do the previous steps,” she states. Identify your anxiety triggers, such as scrolling through a social media feed that may be filled with political arguments, viewing hours of cable news programs or supporting a stressed-out loved one. “It’s important to recognize that we all have our limits of what we can absorb and deal with it,” concludes Clark. “Everyone needs time to rest, regroup and re-up their self-care, so give yourself permission to do this.”

Medically reviewed in March 2018.

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