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How do you deal with anxiety about mass shootings?

Here are three important things you can do if you find yourself scared of being involved in a mass shooting:

  1. Understand statistics
  2. Reduce your exposure to the media right now
  3. Consider taking an active shooter preparation course in the future

Understand that statistics are on your side. The chance of your being involved in a mass shooting is extremely rare. You have a higher chance of being hit by lightning and a much, much higher chance of being involved in an auto accident on the way to work than you do being involved in a mass shooting. You actually need to pay way more attention to whether you’re texting while walking or driving than to whether there are unseen snipers in the vicinity. Having real knowledge about the chances of this happening to you or someone you love can help. But, real knowledge can be undermined by too much exposure to media coverage of the event.

Because news coverage is now 24/7 and designed specifically to engage you to watch continuously (even when there is little or no new information or “news”), you can unfortunately become more anxious and afraid about the possibility of mass shootings due to this secondhand overexposure of an event which is statistically unlikely you will ever experience firsthand. You can become vicariously traumatized watching and rewatching frightening images of people being shot and dying, to the sounds of grave-toned voiceovers and scary music intros that follow limited commercial breaks.

This is why most psychologists recommend that especially when there is a potentially traumatizing news story like this that you change the input and purposefully and consciously reduce your exposure to network coverage of the event. What makes for great Nielsen ratings is not so great for your mental health.

It may seem counterintuitive to do this, because the media presents the story in such a way as to stimulate the part of your brain which is designed to pick up on things in your environment which have the potential to cause you harm. And mass shootings definitely meet that criteria. Turning the tv off or stopping yourself from looking for more information about the shooting may seem like you are doing the wrong thing. What if you miss something that is really important? There’s a crisis going on!

We all do this natural form of virtual “rubber-necking” when there is disaster or carnage, in a built-in survival mechanism to determine if we or our loved ones are also in some danger. But, now is exactly when you need to do some of what psychologists call “cognitive override” of your basic instincts and assess the situation more completely.

Are you in any real physical danger at the moment? Unless you live in Las Vegas and were in the crowd being fired upon by the shooter, or have family or friends who may have been involved in the shooting, you are safe. All of the statistics that show it would be extremely rare for you to be a victim of a mass shooting remain the same. Watching the 24/7 news cycle continuously is what can convince your amygdala (your internal threat detector) that you are not safe. And there will be a release of stress hormones that will also occur watching nonstop crisis coverage, with resulting cognitive, emotional, and physical consequences, including an increase in feelings of anxiety. The best thing you can do is to turn off the coverage, focus on what you have control over, and get your news in digestible doses.

Since mass shootings do occur, one way to manage your anxiety about any event is to know what to do should that event occur. Even a little bit of preparation can help you to feel less anxious about a statistically unlikely event. You can research how to survive in an active shooter situation, or take a course in this if one is offered in your area by local law enforcement agencies or by others who provide this specialized training.

Reducing your anxiety related to mass shootings is important for your mental and physical health. Be reassured you are safe now, you will more than likely remain safe, and turn off the news for awhile.

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