NEWS | August 16, 2019

In the wake of traumatic events: How to cope with anxiety and fear

Q&A with UC Davis Health experts

A Walmart, a food festival, a popular bar: The nation’s most recent mass shootings occurred in very public, everyday places. Fueled by the subsequent news stories and constant social media, that distant violence has sparked feelings of fear and anxiety, even for people not directly connected to those traumatic events.

Feelings of worry and dread after mass shootings are very common, even for those not directly affected by horrific events. Feelings of worry and dread after mass shootings are very common, even for those not directly affected by horrific events.

That gnawing question, “Could it happen here?” has many people more anxious and on edge than usual.

The mere hint of a suspicious individual prompted the recent evacuation of a Costco in Sacramento. A gunshot-like sound from the backfire of a motorcycle in New York City’s Times Square sent people running. And a back-to-school sales display of bulletproof backpacks may not give parents much comfort about their children’s safety either.

Coping with unease, anxiety and fear

Mental health experts at UC Davis Health recently talked about coping with traumatic events.

Peter Yellowlees is a professor of psychiatry at UC Davis Health and the health system’s chief wellness officer.

Q: Many people are feeling anxious and fearful these days.  Is this normal?

Peter Yellowlees: These feelings of worry and dread are very understandable and common.  There’s even a term for it:  We call it “trauma by proxy.”  We’re living through these dreadful mass killings, with horrific videos and extraordinary amounts of media surrounding them. It’s impossible to avoid seeing what’s been going on. We start to feel that trauma, even if we didn’t actually experience it ourselves. It’s similar to how the nation felt after 9-11.  Fear and trauma goes well beyond the sites where tragedy has happened.

And what do you do when life feels bleak and unrelenting? Some people want to curl up in bed. They want to hide under covers and not go outside. We avoid things that remind us of a tragedy’s location, such as a store or concert venue, bar or restaurant.

We also become much more vigilant and begin thinking about all the possible threats around us. It is very normal, but not the best for one’s mental health and well-being.

Q: What can we do to overcome these feelings?

Peter Yellowlees: The key is to fight that instinct to withdraw from things. Instead, face the problem. Force yourself to do the opposite of what you feel. It’s like falling off your bike. You can only overcome that fear by getting right back on and pedaling again. So don’t avoid going to the concert you wanted to attend. Go to the store, or that bar. Stay social. Push yourself to do the things you normally do.

In other words, get active or stay active. Go outside. Smell the roses, as they say. Take a nice walk or swim. Get to the gym. Socialize with friends and family. Stay busy. Keep doing exactly what you always do. It’s the best way to fight our tendency to withdraw from things when we feel the weight of traumatic events around us.

One other thing that can help: Reduce your consumption of TV news and the ever-present social media feeds. They tend to reinforce our angst and fear by replaying the tragedies. Taking a breather from our constant consumption of media can be like a breath of fresh air. It helps clear a stale environment.”

Helping children and teens cope

Beyond what adults should do for themselves, parents must also consider the anxieties and fears of their children.

Brandi Liles and Dawn Blacker are child psychologists in the Department of Pediatrics at UC Davis Health. They say that how children and teens react to mass shooting events is greatly influenced by the reactions of parents, teachers and other caregivers.

Q: What should parents think about as their children absorb news and media about mass shootings?

Brandi Liles: Our kids’ reactions are similar to ours in some respects. They have feelings of anxiety, fear and worry just like we do. And they have fears that another shooting may occur.  So it’s important talk with your child and validate those concerns. It’s also important, just like it is for adults, not to disrupt routines. Keeping life as normal as possible is crucial for overcoming the worries that news events can cause. Kids need to be able to play with friends. They need to go to soccer practice and the park, the mall and the movie theater.

Dawn Blacker: While children experience some of the same feelings about distant tragedies as we adults do, they can’t always verbalize those feelings. So it’s important to encourage children to ask questions. We know that avoiding unpleasant topics and news can lead to more anxiety, not less. 

It’s helpful to watch children for changes in behavior. A decrease in concentration and attention, or increases in irritability and anger can be signs of coping mechanisms that a child is struggling with. Find time to have a conversation, such as when you eat together. It can be a good time to talk about what is happening in the family as well as in the community and around the country.

Brandi Liles: A great resource for parents is the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which is designed to help children and families who experience or witness traumatic events. It can also be very helpful for what Dr. Yellowlees referred to as “trauma by proxy” – where people, including children, suffer from being indirectly affected by a horrific event. The network’s website has an entire section devoted to terrorism and violence such as mass shootings. The resources provide tips and techniques that can be very helpful in ensuring that youngsters and teens are better able to cope with the trauma of events they’re seeing and hearing about through social media and television.

anxiety2

Could it happen here? How to ensure school safety

Anne McBride is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis Health who specializes in youth violence. She is the co-author of the recent book, Safe Passage: A Guide to Addressing School Violence. 

Q: How have recent shootings rekindled fears of ‘Could it happen here?’

Anne McBride: It certainly feels like mass shootings could happen anytime or anywhere. In our schools, for example, more and more students now participate in lockdown and active shooter drills, which may suggest to students that school shootings are common events. However, mass school shootings are statistically rare events. That said, when school shootings occur, they have profound effects on victims, families, and communities. We often wonder if there is anything we can do. 

Q: Is there anything we can do to prevent mass shootings in our schools?

Anne McBride: Yes, absolutely. While we cannot reliably profile who the next mass school shooter will be, we have a wealth of prevention measures we can employ to maintain student safety. Targeted school attacks typically involve planning and preparation. Studies on school attackers have found that most attackers were behaving in ways that caused prior concern from others and that, often times, other people had advance knowledge of the attacker’s ideas or plans. Importantly, the majority of attackers revealed clues about impending violence, whether in writing, drawing, social media posts, or other messages. Fostering a culture where students look out for one another can prevent campus violence.

Students spend a substantial portion of their young lives at school where safety always remains a relevant issue. School violence encompasses a much broader problem, from bullying, physical and sexual violence on campus, to trauma off campus. Schools, collaborating with mental health professionals and often law enforcement, are on the front lines and are integral at identifying those youth at risk for violence so that the most appropriate services can be provided to prevent future violence. There are many evidence-based approaches to preventing violence. Community collaboration is an essential start.