Anxiety. Anger. Sadness. Numbness. Confusion.
Those are just a few of the reactions we have after hearing of another senseless mass shooting. In May 2022, 32 people died at the hands of three individuals. Two of the killers’ motivations were racial. The third’s motivation, at an elementary school, is unclear at this time.
In America, we have experienced 274 mass shootings, killing 1,536 people and almost 1,000 more were wounded by gunfire. Statistically, it seems small in comparison to our population. In reality, however, the emotional impact is tremendous. When a person is killed by a shooter, we see our child, our parent, our grandparent, our sister or brother. It becomes personal, and it feels like an immediate threat to our lives.
There is no doubt every person of color wonders if they are safe to go to the store; every parent questions whether their child is safe at school. The ripple effect in the community spreads to the nation and to the world. The greatest challenge we face today is not ignoring the problem but fighting over the root cause of the problem. Is it the accessibility to powerful firearms? Is it the money that flows to our elected officials so they will ignore the devastating impact of gun violence in this country? Is it mental health? Racism? Rage? Yes. It’s all of it. And in this moment, it is overwhelming.
How do we process this information, care for our emotional and physical safety and the well-being of our children?
With trauma, particularly the secondhand trauma this nation experiences regularly, researchers Lipsky and Burk (2009) discovered consistent responses of those impacted by traumatic events.
We wanted to share these with you and what these might look like in relationship to the trauma experienced this month:
- Grandiosity: “Give _________ (fill in the blank with teacher, church member, etc.) a gun, and they can gun down the shooter before he kills anyone.” “If everyone was armed, a potential shooter would think twice.” These responses give people who need control, a feeling of control. Following a traumatic event, these statements of grandiosity serve a purpose, regardless of whether they are helpful or realistic.
- Hopelessness and helplessness: “We aren’t safe anywhere.” It’s hard to see past the traumatic experience. With this response, we go inward. People of color stay home; guard themselves closely when out (hypervigiliance). Parents keep their children at home and contemplate educational alternatives. The risk is not worth it.
- Minimizing: Statistics let us know we are not in immediate danger. Politicians and lobbyists tell us that regularly. Within hours of a mass shooting, the narrative shifts from grieving the loss of those killed to blame. Anger is normal. Minimizing the devastation of an innocent community is not. But minimizing is a coping skill to keep from feeling the deeper emotions. Once the deeper emotions are felt, there is a call to action, and often, we don’t know what that looks like.
- Anger: Anger is an emotion that can provide us with power and control. Anger feels less vulnerable. In reality, it can become our greatest barrier to courage. Brené Brown states anger is neither good nor bad. It just is. We may get angry with the media. We may get angry with politicians or faith leaders. We may get angry with the perpetrator, those who ignored warning signs, or the society that created the perpetrator’s belief system. If you want to see anger in action, log onto a social media after a tragedy.
- Fear: Fear can prompt us to react when faced with a threat. Fear can increase our cortisol and help us jump into action when we hear the tornado siren, jump into our car and lock the doors if we hear someone walking behind us, or bolt out of bed when we hear a noise in the middle of the night. Once safe, we breathe, our body relaxes and our cortisol returns to a normal level. However, when the trauma or threat is unpredictable and unclear, we don’t know what or who to fear, or when we can feel safe.
What do we do?
Again, we didn’t have to look far for more research on the topic.
Don’t suppress your emotions or the emotions of your child
One of the greatest myths among many trauma-informed leaders is that suppressing emotions demonstrates emotional intelligence. Suppressing emotions can jeopardize your physical and emotional well-being, giving more power to the emotion and trapping the emotion in the body. One may look calm on the outside, but the emotion stays trapped in the body. Rather than suppressing the emotion, we want to regulate the emotion and we want to teach our children to regulate the emotion. Begin by naming it. What emotion are you feeling or what emotion is your child feeling?
Allow yourself to feel angry
It’s understandable. It’s warranted. “Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. Or sometimes anger can mask a far more difficult emotion like grief, regret, or shame, and we need to use it to dig into what we’re really feeling. Either way, anger is a powerful catalyst but a life-sucking companion.” (Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone 2017). When you are ready, transform your anger into something life-giving.
Talk about emotions openly with a trusted person
This may be a friend, a partner, a parent, or a counselor. Let your child talk openly with you about how they are feeling. Manage the emotion in ways that support your physical body. “What can you do with this anger?” “What can we do when we are scared?” Teach your child how to do that, as well. The Gottman Institute provides a resource for parents on talking with children about emotions.
Complete the stress cycle and teach your child what that looks like
This is not a one-and-done process. For those facing chronic, ongoing, relentless societal stress, this will be a process that requires intentionality and focus. The research on the impact of chronic stress is clear. What isn’t clear at times is knowing when you are living in a season of chronic stress.
Nagoski and Nagoski (2019) provide evidenced based strategies for completing the stress cycle:
- Physical activity that includes using your body and getting your heart rate up. Teach your child to the do the same. Have a teenager? Dance with them, take them to the batting cages, go for a walk, or challenge each other to sprints. Be clear with your child about what you are doing and why so they learn they are not suppressing the emotion but releasing the physical toll an emotion may have on their body. Looking for suggestions? Dallas Children’s Hospital has a wonderful article to engage children in physical activity.
- Be creative. Painting, sidewalk chalk, playing the piano, singing, or gardening. Choose whatever you or your child enjoys. Need ideas for younger children? Check out this article for 11 creative activities for kids.
- Laughter. You don’t have to look far for the therapeutic benefits to laughing. Laughing releases stress-relieving hormones in your body. For children, it’s important that laughter be meaningful and appropriate to their emotion. The goal isn’t to make a child laugh when they are sad or to distract them from painful emotions. Find humor in conversations or moments, when appropriate.
- Crying. Let it all out. According to research, 10 minutes of crying can complete the stress cycle. It may not eliminate the stressor, but it can make you or your child feel better. If you need more encouragement to cry, read more about the benefits of crying.
- Physical affection. “Hold your children a little tighter” is a phrase we often hear after a tragedy, But, in this case, physical affection plays a tremendous role by releasing oxytocin, lowering blood pressure and reducing cortisol. Have you heard about the 20 second hug? Learn why it is the perfect hug.
- Deep breathing. Mindful breathing simply means paying attention to your breath. When you slow your breath, focus on how you breathe (in through your nose and out through your mouth) or breathe in a pattern. Breathing calms your physical body and increases your ability to regulate the emotion you are feeling. This is an excellent article to help children learn to breath to reduce their stress.
- Take steps towards action. Consider what matters to you in these moments of national heartbreak. Are you passionate about anti-racism efforts? Is your focus on gun control? Do you feel teachers need more classroom support? Perhaps you don’t feel politicians are doing enough to address the issue you are passionate about. Make a commitment to incorporate one healing activity into your life that will help you feel you are a part of the solution.
- Recognize the ripple effect. Following the mass shooting in Uvalde, teachers around Texas are getting memos to keep their doors locked during school hours. Black and brown people around the nation continue to be triggered by reports of “replacement theory,” Critical Race Theory, and the ongoing impact of white supremacy. Be mindful of what those around you are experiencing. Let loving kindness be the ripple effect.
You may wonder why prayer isn’t added to this list. Those of us who pray, know the importance of prayer in our lives. We know God can renew hurt and angry hearts. We know he is with us in our darkest hours. We know he can bring beauty out of horrific tragedy. But today, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become equally triggering for those who have experienced trauma. Prayer cannot take the place of action and God-led, faith-filled action is needed.
Our prayers are that you will listen to how God is calling you to be a spiritual leader and a healer during this time – for yourself, your children and your community.
Written by Dr. Amy Curtis, director of counseling at Buckner International.