No, it’s not your imagination: Mass shootings have become much more common in recent years.
The Gun Violence Archive (GVA) defines a mass shooting as an act of gun violence with four or more victims shot. According to the GVA, the annual number of mass shootings in the United States:
- was already growing steadily before the pandemic. The number of mass shootings rose from 269 in 2014 to 417 in 2019.
- rose dramatically in the last 2 years. There were 610 mass shootings in 2020 and 692 in 2021.
- remains high in 2022. As of May 31, 230 mass shootings have taken place, with the Uvalde shooting being the deadliest this year.
Newspapers, TV stations, and social media offer a constant stream of coverage on these shootings, which happen nearly every day.
Humanity only recently gained the ability to stay informed in real-time of tragedies taking place across the globe. But evidence suggests repeated media exposure to mass shootings leads many people to feel dread, despair, and deep alienation from society at large — perhaps in part because the human brain lacks the emotional capacity to process all this pain and death.
While modern media allows people to share vital information and support with one another, it has a downside, too. A barrage of bad or tragic news can quickly take a toll on your mental health.
It’s often challenging to find a healthy middle ground between staying informed and protecting yourself from information overload. These seven tips can help you protect your mental health in the aftermath of a mass shooting, or any large-scale tragedy.
1. Take stock of how you feel
After a mass shooting, you might experience many emotions. Sadness is a common reaction when the news first comes out and people begin to mourn the victims. As time passes, sadness often shifts to anxiety about future shootings.
The more removed you are from an incident, the more you tend to focus on the bigger picture of why gun violence happens. You may:
- grow anxious as you try to predict whether a similar shooting could happen in your hometown
- feel angry at the shooter
- become frustrated with politicians who don’t seem to treat the U.S. gun crisis with the urgency it deserves
Your emotions can serve as a useful barometer to help determine when you’ve had too much media exposure. As you move through the news, take advantage of commercial breaks or ad spaces to check in with yourself.
- What feelings does this piece of media trigger (create)?
- Can you calm down without too much effort?
- Do you feel “trapped” in a particular mood, or unable to stop reading?
- Do you notice physical symptoms, like muscle tension, a pounding heart, or difficulty catching your breath?
It’s absolutely natural to feel upset, but you can take strong distress as a sign you likely need a break.
For example, maybe you watch a video of the shooting and notice your muscles are tense and your thoughts are racing with what ifs. In that case, it could help to step away from the news for a while, or at least shift to less graphic forms of coverage.
2. Take regular breaks
Even if you feel fine emotionally, you’ll typically still want to take frequent breaks from the news. Mass shootings can trigger stress, whether you notice it right away or not. If you let that stress build up too high, it can overwhelm you at a later, more vulnerable moment.
During these breaks, try to stick to calming activities. While you may enjoy murder mysteries or multiplayer combat games, it won’t hurt to avoid any hobbies that remind you of the violence.
Instead, consider stress-relieving activities like:
- Crafts. This could include cooking, gardening, drawing, origami, and other art.
- Light exercise. You could take a quick stroll around the block or a brief stretch break at your desk.
- Meditation. You might try yoga, mantras, or deep breathing.
- Slow-paced games. Think Wordle or Animal Crossing, not Call of Duty.
- Conversation. Chat with a coworker over coffee or trade knock-knock jokes with your kids (or roommates).
3. Avoid doomscrolling
Of course, taking breaks is often easier said than done, especially when it comes to social media. After a mass shooting, you may find yourself “doomscrolling” through content related to the tragedy, feeling stressed and upset but still unable to look away.
Doomscrolling can happen for a few reasons:
Platforms like Tiktok and Twitter are designed to keep you perpetually scrolling through content so you stay on their app. If unwanted emotions like fear and anger keep you clicking, the algorithm will only keep feeding you more emotionally charged content.
You can temporarily cleanse your timeline of upsetting posts by filtering out hashtags like #gunviolence and #massshooting.
This tells the app not to show you posts with those tags. If someone doesn’t tag a post, it may show up, but the filter should catch most of them.
Doomscrolling can be a form of hypervigilance. You may search through shooting-related posts to gauge how big the threat is and how much danger you’re in. While scrolling can make you feel prepared, staring at your phone for an hour probably won’t do much to make you tangibly safer.
Instead, try putting down your phone and ground yourself by observing the world around you. Take note of things like:
- ambient noise
- the smell in the air
- the texture of the ground under your feet
It can also help to remind yourself that you’re safe. The shooting has already happened elsewhere, so you’re not in any immediate danger.
On social media, many people treat silence as a statement in itself. You may worry that if you fail to comment on a particular shooting, you’ll appear to lack compassion for the victims. You may also feel you have a civic duty to stay informed on each and every update.
But remember, you don’t owe your followers (or anyone at all) a live performance of your pain and distress. If you find the news too upsetting to keep up with, tell people you’re taking a break (and why, if you like). Most people will understand.
Those who criticize you may simply want an outlet to ease their own worry and distress. Even so, you’re under no obligation to read or respond to their remarks.
4. Choose your sources wisely
After a mass shooting, a lot of information can come out at once, but not everything you read is necessarily true. In fact, it’s fairly common for online trolls to pose as local witnesses and spread rumors. Sometimes, these rumors attack a specific person or group of people.
For example, after the Uvalde shooting, a false rumor originating from the message board 4chan suggested the shooter was a transgender person. The conspiracy spread quickly and even reached Congressman Paul Gosar’s Twitter feed before fact-checkers caught up with the hoax and debunked it.
Trolls often design their posts to get attention by making them as upsetting as possible. If a post has the perfect recipe of outrageous language to get your blood pumping, that’s a cue to press the pause button. Before you let yourself get emotionally worked up, take a minute to make sure the claims are actually true.
A few signs you’ve encountered a troll post:
- The original account got banned or deleted shortly after making the post.
- The original account has very few followers. The followers they do have share each other’s posts and no one else’s.
- The post is vague about where its information came from.
- The post uses memes popular among hate groups, such as Pepe the Frog.
5. Pick your battles
Mass shootings often prompt a lot of debate online about topics like gun control, mental health, and policing. These arguments can range from tense disagreements to outright digital warfare.
Needless to say, you’ll do your mental and emotional well-being a favor by sticking to the more civil corners of debate. “Civil,” in this case, refers to discussions where those involved trade ideas rather than insults.
- “We need to f***ing pass X law already” could be considered a civil line even though it contains a cuss word. That’s because you’re commenting on a specific policy, not a person.
- “You’re an idiot for opposing X law” wouldn’t be considered civil, even though you might consider the term “idiot” less taboo than the F-word. (It’s ableist language, though.) You’ve derailed the focus of debate from the merits of a certain law to the other person’s intelligence.
It may feel cathartic at first to “roast” an opponent online. But after an hour of exchanging insults, you’ll probably feel more emotionally drained than triumphant.
In short, you’re more likely to enact some political change by contacting your state representatives than bickering with a digital stranger
6. Be honest with kids
If you’re a parent, teacher, or caregiver, don’t be surprised when your children ask about the shooting. Kids have a knack for picking up tidbits of news, no matter how much you try to shield them from violence.
You may feel tempted to shut down the conversation or temporarily ban social media to protect your child. But hiding the truth may backfire and make your child more anxious. They likely need comfort during this scary time. Cutting off social support may push them to express fear and anger in unhealthy ways, like disruptive behavior at school.
When you talk about the shooting, the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement recommends letting your child lead the conversation.
It may help to:
- Ask what they know so far.
- Correct any misconceptions they have.
- Answer their questions as honestly as you can.
You’ll likely need to tailor the discussion to your child’s maturity level. A young child may only need a simple explanation such as, “Someone hurt some people with a gun today, and the grown-ups are sad about that.” Older kids and teenagers may need a longer, more nuanced conversation to soothe their anxieties.
7. Know when to reach out for support
You don’t need to be directly involved in a mass shooting for it to affect you emotionally. Every shooting becomes part of a larger pattern of gun violence, a national crisis that affects everyone. Simply living in an environment with such widespread, unpredictable violence can be traumatic.
How do you know if your stress around mass shootings has become something more serious?
You may want to consider connecting with a professional for more support if you experience:
- Hypervigilance. Maybe you startle whenever you hear loud noises, like a door slam or distant fireworks.
- Obsessions. You constantly check the news, to the extent that you can’t focus on anything else.
- Anger. You have intrusive thoughts about “punishing” the people you blame for the violence.
- Sleep issues. Maybe images of the shooting linger in your head, making it hard to relax.
- Hopelessness. Maybe you have trouble motivating yourself to do anything since you feel you could be killed at any time.
A therapist can’t prevent mass shootings, it’s true. But they can help you manage your fears around gun violence and grieve the current state of the country.
Keep in mind, too, that therapy can help at any time. You don’t need to wait until your mental health reaches a low point before getting support.
The bottom line
The recent spike in gun violence in the U.S. has many people fearing for their survival, the safety of their loved ones, and the fate of the country as a whole. During this stressful time, it can be easy to lose yourself in the media storm of panic, anger, and dread.
While staying informed is important, so is protecting your mental health. Try to take regular breaks from the news, and take care with the types of media you engage with.
Above all, remember that although tragedies happen, good still exists in the world. Plenty of people out there continue to work tirelessly to solve this crisis and build a more peaceful society. If enough people work together, change is possible.