More than two years of pandemic. A war in Ukraine that has led to fears of a global escalation. Deep political division, open racism, and economic worries at home. Mass shooting after mass shooting, more than 200 so far this year.
In a time when bad news feels unrelenting, the killing of 19 children and two teachers in a Texas elementary school has sent many of us reeling.
And no matter how far removed we might personally be from the events, experts say, they still take a toll on our mental health.
Often those who have the strongest reactions can identify in some way with the victims, such as parents contemplating the school shooting in Texas on Tuesday and Black people hearing news of the racist killing of 10 at a grocery store in Buffalo less than two weeks earlier.
But anyone with a capacity for empathy can experience anxiety, depression, numbness, despair, or even symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, clinicians said.
“It’s not uncommon that folks feel shock, anxiety . . . based on a trauma that may occur far away and doesn’t have an 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’s a distant experience.”
Mass shootings “add fuel to the fire” of the 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 those kids experienced. Your mind goes to profound sadness and loss. And you place yourself in that parent’s shoes, and you think about how you would react and respond,” she said.
“That’s why the weight of these events really has an impact on us emotionally. We’re going through a similar emotional experience, even though we don’t know the person.”
But if the person is like you in some way, you can feel the pain even more acutely, she said. Black people learning about the Buffalo shooting “are reminded of the level of dangerousness and vulnerability that’s associated with walking around this country with Black skin,” Crawford said.
Merely hearing about racist incidents can prompt a trauma response, she said.
“Just being exposed repeatedly to these images on TV can elicit symptoms that appear similar to 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 gunned down in the Buffalo supermarket. But even more painful was thinking of his young children when news of the Texas shooting broke.
“You feel it much more viscerally when there is some connection,” Simon said.
His solution — one he urges others to adopt — is to talk about it. When he heard the news about Texas, he called his wife. Then he started texting with 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 feed a sense of uncertainty about what everyday life can bring. “Increasingly, we’re seeing that this is happening everywhere,” DeVoe said. “This could happen to any of us.”
“People can become numb. People can develop a sense of outrage but feel like they don’t know what to do,” she said. “What’s helpful is to recognize those reactions — and take action.”
Just as people feel better when they help rebuild a community after a natural disaster, people troubled by the shootings can get involved by talking 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 isn’t a right action to take.”
Through all this, she cautions, “just make sure you take care of yourself and your family, and fight the numbness. That’s the worst thing that can happen, that we all become used to this, and feel numb and fearful.”
Baker, the Mass. General psychologist, said she urges people to adjust their thoughts, remembering that even now, a school shooting in one’s own neighborhood remains unlikely.
At the same time, she advises, be sure to engage in pleasurable activities and take measures that soothe, such as meditation or relaxation exercises.
“It’s super important to acknowledge and validate the feelings you are having” and share them with others, Baker said. “Chances are you’re not the only one feeling that.”
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 fundamentals of self-care: getting enough sleep, going outside, eating healthfully, getting exercise.
Sometimes shutting down and withdrawing can be a form of self-care, said Crawford, of Boston Medical Center. Just as a computer running too many programs might need to reboot, a person overwhelmed by emotions may need some time to “shut off, reset. It allows us to function later.”
But, she added, be sure to communicate with those around you about why you’re withdrawing, 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.”