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Mass shootings: How to calm anxiety and fear in yourself and your loved ones

By John Duffy, CNN

Over the past several weeks, it seems like nearly every day Americans find ourselves processing another mass shooting. Over time, the number of casualties, the cities, and the circumstances may seem to blur together. This feeling is familiar. We’ve been here before and, if our recent history is any indication, we will be here again.

And although it may seem as if you and your family are numb to headlines about mass shootings, it’s very possible that you are not. Many people are likely feeling the stress and even distress tied to each event with every passing day. So, it’s worthwhile to ask how we take care of ourselves and our loved ones during these emotionally brittle times. I’ve reached out to some colleagues for some ideas and how best to care for ourselves, our loved ones and our children during these times. Here are some ideas from experts.

Normalize our fears

It’s OK to be fearful during times of uncertainty, instability and violence, according to clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University and host of the “Reimagining Love” podcast. Fear is, she said, a perfectly normal and expected reaction to such events.

Psychotherapist Kelley Kitley, author of “My Self: An Autobiography of Survival” and mother of four, agreed with Solomon, saying that families are threading a very delicate needle here. On one hand, we shouldn’t try to avoid conversations about violence that are prompted by peers or media coverage. On the other hand, we don’t want to sit in fear.

Feeling scared makes sense, but we also need to be aware of feeling excessively fearful — or of our kids feeling that way. Check in with yourself and your kids. If being afraid is interfering significantly with your lives, consider some of the following interventions to help mitigate your anxiety, or your family’s apprehension.

Opportunities for connection

Many of us would like to protect our children from some of these alarming headlines, but with the wide access our kids have to information, this is no longer a reasonable expectation, Kitley said.

Mass shootings are devastating events, but they present families with an opportunity for meaningful talks about broad social issues, including an opportunity to talk about safety and race. For instance, her 10-year-old recently asked Kitley, “Why are people even allowed to buy guns?” A healthy discussion ensued about social issues and safety across races and demographics that Kitley and her child may never have engaged in otherwise. It’s also important to note that our kids need to express their opinions and be heard.

We need to be open to communication with our children, even if what they have to express does not match our feelings or beliefs, Solomon added. At times of distress, kids need to be heard, and not only to correct and redirect any errors in thinking or facts.

Cathy Cassani Adams, adjunct professor of sociology at Dominican University in the metro Chicago area and author of the recently published “Zen Parenting: Caring for Ourselves and Our Children in an Unpredicatable World,” adds that it’s important to keep in mind the good people involved in keeping all of us safe. Remind yourself and your children that, though we see reports of violence every day, this type of violence remains relatively rare, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy cited by RAND Corporation’s report on mass shootings in the United States. And remember that heroes, helpers and problem solvers are always present. This affirmation provides hope, a rare commodity at times like these.

Know your facts

Solomon shared some thoughts on the racial elements of these tragic events. She believes the challenge for parents and caregivers in families is to be sober, direct, and age-appropriate about the realities and dangers of anti-Blackness and White supremacy.

“I want parents in White families to be intentional about talking about many of these as White supremacist shootings, versus mass shootings,” she said. “Parents of young White males especially need to be monitoring online activity. We know that groups are targeting young White guys for radicalization.”

This is not about making anybody feel guilty or bad about being White, she said. As a White man, I know it is about our responsibility as White people to understand our country’s history and how insidious systemic racism has been and continues to be deeply rooted.

Pay attention to your information intake

It’s important to be informed about what’s going on day-to-day, but be mindful that the news about mass shootings can be overwhelming to your family. To limit the anxiety you and your kids might experience, turn off the news at least some of the time, Kitley suggested.

Remember to create some normal family time, doing chores and playing games. During times of high stress, a degree of normalcy will provide a sense of balance that your family needs. Solomon said that families need to focus on each other and cultivate moments of joy and pleasure and rest.

Don’t skip the good stuff

This is an important time of year for so many families, with proms, graduations, the end of school, family vacations and other rites of passages that are joyful. Kitley recommended focusing on the good stuff that’s right in front of us.

In order to maintain a sense of well-being, don’t just avoid the headlines — enjoy these milestone events. Some sense of normalcy and joy is crucial for making it through times of social unrest.

Get involved in positive change

Families fare best when they have a mission to do something instead of standing by while terrible events are taking place. In fact, a 2020 meta-analysis by the journal Psychological Bulletin revealed that helping others improves our own emotional well-being, a powerful benefit fringe to getting involved.

So get your family to make a donation, organize a march, or do something else in an effort to curb violence in this country. As Kitley told me, sometimes taking action and getting involve might help you feel empowered to be a part of something.

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