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.

young black woman holding tv remote, young black woman watching television

Updated on April 7, 2022.

When we receive news of a mass shooting and watch communities grieve, we’re often left with feelings of sadness and hopelessness—and we may fear that another tragic event is looming. In fact, a Gallup poll conducted in September 2019 found that nearly half of Americans are "somewhat" or "very" worried that they or a family member 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. “It can be a powerful tool in focusing our attention on what we care about."

With that in mind, Clark offers these five steps for managing your anxiety following a national tragedy.

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.”

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,” she says.

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

Do 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 has a phrase she shares with her clients: “It’s possible that something can happen, but the probability is highly unlikely,” she says.

Clark also recommends researching 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,” she says.

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 says. When people use that energy to solve what is bothering them, she explains, it can ease their anxiety.

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 says.

When this happens, identify your anxiety triggers, such as scrolling through a social media feed that may be filled with political arguments or viewing hours of cable news programs.

“It’s important to recognize that we all have our limits of what we can absorb and deal with it,” says Clark. “Everyone needs time to rest, regroup and re-up their self-care, so give yourself permission to do this."

Article sources open article sources Nearly Half in U.S. Fear Being the Victim of a Mass Shooting. September 10, 2019. Coping Tips for Traumatic Events and Disasters. February 22, 2022. Accessed April 7, 2022.
American Psychological Association. Managing your distress in the aftermath of a shooting. July 29, 2019.
American Counseling Association. Coping in the aftermath of a shooting. 2022.

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