Psychologist: Understanding anxiety in the flood of mass shooting, gun control news
CLEMSON — The stress on survivors and the families of victims of mass shootings is obvious to anyone who listens to the many firsthand accounts that come to light in the days that follow these incidents.
But as each new mass shooting brings a wave of media attention, the people watching and reading the news reports are affected in some ways, too, according to Heidi Zinzow, an associate professor of psychology at Clemson University.
When a person is exposed to news of mass shootings and controversy over gun control, how can it affect them?
There are a variety of stress reactions depending on the person. People taking in this news can feel a sense of hopelessness, shock, sorrow or anger. Some may look out for danger in their everyday lives and be hypervigilant.
For people who have actually witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, a news report might even bring back memories of their past traumatic event that can lead to anxiety or distress. People may struggle to find solutions or understand these problems, and they may experience frustration when there is a lack of satisfactory resolution.
What can people do to relieve this anxiety?
Some children will naturally worry about their own schools or their own safety, and parents should not miss the opportunity to talk and — more importantly — listen to their children. Parents can use their best judgment about what information should be presented to their children, but they should also reassure them that many people are dedicated to keeping them safe, from teachers to law enforcement.
Both parents and children should limit exposure to news and media coverage of violence. Parents should be aware that children may express anxiety in ways beyond verbalizing their feelings. Parents should consider getting help for their children if they notice behavior problems, such as poor school performance, refusing to go to school, sleeping trouble, headaches or stomachaches, or loss of interest in activities. However, many of these problems subside over time and not all people exposed to news of violence will experience distress.
Adults also need to care for themselves when they experience anxiety or distress. This includes seeking support from their friends and community as well as seeking mental health services if their problems begin to interfere with their social lives or work. Effective stress management includes maintaining routines of healthy eating and physical activity, as well as engaging in pleasurable activities.
Can participation in protest or marches on this issue help with anxiety?
Protest and advocacy work can help some people with anxiety and distress because it can empower them. Trauma victims and people who have learned about mass violence often want to make meaning of what happened and find ways to exert control over these problems in whatever way is possible. Many of the most effective advocates on issues concerning violence prevention are doing it because they want to prevent it from happening to anyone else.
Just be aware that if you want to help others you have to have enough gas in the tank. I tell my clients sometimes to put your own gas mask on first. You have to have enough self-care in place to have the energy to help others or you could wind up in a more vulnerable position.
People can also latch onto too many causes and become overwhelmed. For these individuals, it may help to focus on one issue at a time.
Who is more at risk for developing this kind of anxiety?
People who have had a stress reaction to a prior traumatic event can be vulnerable. Children are also vulnerable because they don’t have a great deal of control of their world and most don’t have a broader perspective on the real risks of violence or how to cope with trauma.
Most people who experience a traumatic event don’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or mental health problems. While some people develop PTSD, depression or substance abuse problems, most people are resilient. It’s best to not assume that people are helpless and hopeless.
Researchers have found that a majority of people exposed to traumatic events don’t develop significant mental health problems. However, mental health symptoms should not be ignored and people should seek help when they experience significant distress or if these problems begin to interfere with their daily activities.
What causes people to react differently to this kind of news?
It depends on the lens through which they filter the information. A person may react differently based on life experiences, genetic predispositions or current stressors. Some people may believe that events like this will inevitably happen because someone will always find access to lethal weapons if they want them. Others may attribute these events to mental illness, which is often used to deflect issues related to gun violence.
While it’s important to think about access to weapons for people with a mental illness, it’s also important to acknowledge that the majority of people with mental illness aren’t violent. Serious mental illness is responsible for a small minority of all gun violence. Someone with a mental illness is far more likely to die by suicide than they are to commit homicide. It could be argued that we need to be more concerned with people harming themselves because it is more frequent among people with a mental illness.
We should think about mental health and gun violence as public health issues that are best approached through prevention. This includes increasing access to mental health services, bolstering community support systems and evaluating policies and programs that could reduce gun violence.