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Coping With The Impact of Random Shootings

Why These Tragedies Affect Us All So Strongly--And How You Can Cope


Updated December 17, 2012

Coping With The Impact of Random Shootings
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When tragedies like random violence or school shootings occur, it affects many of us very deeply for several reasons:
  • Empathy: It is heartbreaking to hear about innocent victims being terrorized. Even when we do not know the victims, we can't help but identify with them, and imagine what they must have felt. We tend to mourn their loss, and our hearts go out to their families. First and foremost, these events are breathtakingly sad, and, regardless of if we knew them, we feel that loss.

  • Human Cause: According to research, traumatic events that are intentionally caused by a person (rather than a random act of nature, for example) are the most difficult to recover from (followed by those unintentionally caused by a person).

  • Random Violence: The randomness of events like school shootings cause us all to fear for our children and for ourselves, as there is nothing to distinguish the victims from anyone else. Often with violence, we look for things that would set us apart from the victims so that we can still feel safe and less at-risk (“I never sleep with my windows open like that rape victim did, so that couldn’t as easily happen to me”). With such random shootings, we must realize that we, too, would be vulnerable in such a situation.

  • No Warning: In most of life’s dangerous situations, there are at least one or two warning signs of impending danger, and we use these to help us avoid being vulnerable. Storm clouds gather, animals bare their fangs, fights escalate. However, in instances like school shootings, where students were simply going to class as they did every day, or with mall or church shootings, where victims were merely going about their daily lives, there was no warning, which makes us all realize that something like this could happen to us with no warning as well.

So in situations like these, we are more likely to put ourselves in the place of the victims, which can cause us all to become more traumatized by these events. We hear about the quick thinkers who saved themselves and other students in the Virginia Tech shootings, for example, and of heroes who gave their lives to protect others, and we wonder how we would react in such a situation. We wonder what could have been done to prevent this so we can know how to feel safer.

These reactions are helpful to us and to society in a way, so before we push away feelings of anxiety and distress over the shootings, we should allow them to do what they’re meant to do: push us to action. Important discussions are taking place about what we as a society can do to take action and try to prevent tragic events like these from occurring again. But on an individual level, what actions can be taken?

  • Safety Plans: The most obvious next step is for us all to look for ways that safety can be increased and human casualties can be minimized or eliminated in the future, if such a tragedy were to occur again. Following past school shootings, changes have been made such as increases in campus security, zero-tolerance policies, and increased vigilance. (In fact, the shooter in this case had already raised some red flags on campus and was recommended repeatedly for counseling.) Also, some groups like TeenCentral.net have come into action and have reportedly stopped potential school shooters. Other potential shooters have been turned in by vigilant classmates. Recent would-be shooters in other venues have been stopped ahead of time as well. Possible next steps could include the adoption of a policy where all students on a campus (middle school-level through college) could receive a warning text message in the event of a shooting on a campus, and a clear policy could be publicized to keep students safer in such an event. In tragedies like Sandy Hook, some safety measures were already in place, and no foreseeable amount of additional safety measures could probably have prevented the tragedy (indeed, the quick arrival of first responders likely shortened the duration of the attack and saved lives), but making any plans that can cut down on loss in any situation is helpful.

  • Personal Preparedness: As individuals, we can also become more safety-oriented. We can have clear plans in our minds of what to do in an emergency situation. We can become more trusting of our intuition and listen to the inner voice that warns us of potentially dangerous people. (This may or may not help in a school shooting situation, but it can keep us safer in many other potentially dangerous scenarios.)

  • Reaching Out: Those who would do something as senseless and violent as what these shooters have done are clearly disturbed, emotionally unstable, or mentally ill. They tend to be isolated loners who feel severely angry and hopeless, and have dehumanized others in their minds. While no amount of reaching out may have helped these individuals, if anything constructive can come from such tragedy, perhaps it’s a reminder of the importance of human connection. Whether it inspires someone to reach out to an acquaintance who may be isolated and lonely, or it sparks someone who’s at the end of their rope to seek help or support, a greater sense of connection among people could result from such a tragedy.

So, aside from actions that can be inspired by tragic events, the resulting painful emotions must be processed and dealt with. As I alluded above, those of us who weren’t directly touched by these types of events may be surprised by how strongly affected we are by them, and still need to process what we’re feeling.

The next page has information on how to cope with random and tragic events like these, for people who were involved, and for those who weren't directly involved, but were still affected.

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