An unending series of tragedies seem to have become America’s new normal.
This week, 19 schoolchildren and 2 adults were killed in Uvalde, Texas. This was just days after a shooter in Buffalo, New York, killed 10 people who were mostly Black. Around the same time, churchgoers tackled a gunman in California, who killed one and injured five.
The American Public Health Association says gun violence in the US is a public health crisis. It is a leading cause of premature death in the country, responsible for more than 38,000 deaths annually. As of May 26, at least 17,332 people have died from gun violence this year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive.
Yet we’re all expected to keep working. Keep taking our kids to school. Keep meeting for happy hour drinks like more innocent people weren’t killed. Just keep on keeping on, right?
But those emotions you feel, they’re normal. The numbness that envelopes your entire mind and body, that’s normal too. A vast range of feelings — sadness, frustration, anger, anxiety, fear — can overwhelm you in moments of grief following mass shootings, natural disasters, and other tragedies.
To be clear, we’re talking about people who are mostly witnessing these events in the news cycle, rather than experiencing them firsthand in their hometown, school, or even in their family — although few in the US are completely untouched by random acts of violence.
It’s important to recognize, understand, and get in touch with those emotions.
“The truth is, if we don't, they’re still going to be there. It's just a matter of how it's going to come out — and it will come out,” said Stephanie Marcello, chief psychologist at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, who specializes in treating people who’ve experienced trauma.
“It makes sense that you're having these different types of feelings and thoughts and behaviors. Let's talk about them,” she said. “Let’s become aware of how we may be responding, and then we can make a decision if that response is healthy for us or not.”
There is no right or wrong way to feel after tragedy strikes
People experience trauma and express their stress in many different ways, but some common reactions and emotions emerge every time another tragedy strikes: desensitization (or numbness), anger, sadness, fear, shame, and guilt.
Some people may appear to shut down in the face of tragedy; their reactions, or lack thereof, might come off as insensitive. But this response often protects people from burning out or breaking down. It’s also one of the most common reactions among people who’ve been through trauma, Marcello said, especially sustained trauma, like back-to-back mass shootings.
Tragedy after tragedy may make some people unable or unwilling to process their emotions, which causes them to enter something like a state of shock. “So there’s danger in that in a lot of ways because those feelings are still there,” she said. “You’re just in such an avoidance mode that you can’t experience them.”
While it’s OK and normal to use this coping mechanism, at least initially, it’s important to ensure your behaviors aren’t harming your mental health or that of others around you, she said.
“How we respond when something like this happens, even though it’s very obvious to others, may not be very obvious to us,” Marcello said.
It’s incredibly easy to resort to anger and unload those intense emotions on others when tragedies occur.
“Anger is one of those feelings that people tend to like having on some level. It tends to give us a false sense of control and superiority, like we're on some level entitled to our anger,” Marcello said. “It's a tough one because some people really don't like to give it up.”
Anger is a normal and healthy human emotion — but it can get out of control, so it’s critical that in moments of uncertainty, chaos, and grief, you check in with yourself and others “to figure out what else is going on because there’s definitely more to that story,” she said.
This important work can be done by seeing a therapist, she said, and by taking care of yourself, whether that’s spiritually, physically, or emotionally.
“It’s like opening a can of soda. You keep bottling things up, eventually it’s going to pop and explode,” she said. “It’s going to have to come out in some way.”
Sadness, fear, shame, and guilt
Every time you make it safely to the other side of a tragedy (i.e., you survive), it can be distressing to deal with the reality of “why not me?” It’s a common reaction called survivor’s guilt, and it’s characterized by strong, persistent feelings of personal responsibility, sadness, and guilt.
The fact that children are more frequently becoming victims of violence adds a whole other layer of frustration and fear, Marcello said. Some parents may even feel guilty for dropping their kids off at school, where, in the US, safety is no longer guaranteed.
Naturally, children and teenagers are influenced by how their caregivers react to traumatic events, and they “typically turn to them for information and comfort,” Marcello said. So it’s extra important when events involve children that adults pay attention to kids’ emotions and relay to younger ones that it’s OK to feel many feelings at once.
“One of the best things we can do, especially as adults, is sit and let those feelings come and pass,” she said. “The more we try to fight them off, the more they're going to still be there.”
Your emotions may manifest as physical symptoms
Some people are comfortable expressing themselves emotionally; it’s easy for them to tell people when they’re sad, frustrated, or mad. But for others, their emotions may manifest physically, like deep in their chest or stomach, Marcello said.
“It’s easier in some ways to say ‘My stomach hurts’ versus ‘I’m so scared and anxious,’” she said. “That's a more challenging thing for people to say if they haven’t really been educated in how to do that.”
Other times, emotions may present themselves in unhealthy behaviors, such as loss of sleep, poor appetite, shopping sprees that lead to debt, and substance abuse.
“Typically, when we’re not addressing emotions in healthier, safer ways, they can come out in other ways like using drugs or alcohol or developing a sex addiction,” Marcello said, “or anything that might make us feel good in the moment but has these longer-term consequences to it.”
How to cope with your emotions after a tragedy
First and foremost, you must be patient with yourself, Marcello said.
“You might feel a little more distracted or tired, so you have to give yourself that space to rest a little bit,” she said.
It’s also a good idea to limit your media exposure if you find you can’t disconnect and it’s only fueling your negative emotions. And remember to keep doing the things that bring you joy, like going for walks, hanging out with friends, or taking your favorite exercise class.
You’ll want to stick to your normal routine as much as possible too, Marcello advised. “Take your shower. Make your bed. Start your day by honoring yourself,” she said.
“It’s always about building wellness into our lives in different areas of what matters to us, so that when these things happen — because they’re going to happen — we have these things to support us,” she said. “Not everybody has this luxury, but there’s simple things you can do every day to maintain consistency.”
At the same time, you should avoid making any major personal changes in light of a tragedy. Instead, you can try getting involved with your community to spur the change you want to see.
“Honestly, the most important thing that we do is we talk about it,” Marcello said.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or alone, reach out. That can mean processing your feelings with a loved one or talking to a professional. If you need to talk to someone immediately, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline is 1-888-950-6264 (NAMI) and provides information and referral services; GoodTherapy.org is an association of mental health professionals from more than 25 countries who support efforts to reduce harm in therapy.