“I had a client who told me, ‘You know, I’m kind of desensitized to this,’” said Steve Alexander Jr., a licensed mental health counselor in Brooklyn. “I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or a good thing.” He said.
In recent years, her clients have expressed feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, said Michelle Slater, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Jacksonville, Florida.
“It’s just another thing for them to feel like this system isn’t working — that now we’re not safe in our grocery stores or our churches,” she said. And then on the flip side, I see a lot of disengagement from her. How many shoots can we mourn in one week? People are tired of being cared.”
The scourge of gun violence is likely to be a topic of discussion at many holiday tables this Thanksgiving. Recent events began with Fatal shooting of three soccer players at the University of Virginia, by a fellow student. Then armed Opening fire at Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, killing five. Recently, the police say Wal-Mart employee He opened fire on his co-workers, killing six and wounding six others.
While some dinner guests may feel that gun violence is the wrong thing to discuss at a festive meal, talking about tragedies with family and friends is a good coping strategy, Johnson said.
“I don’t care if it’s a holiday or if it spoils the mood,” she said. “People need to come out that they miss their loved ones or are angry about the state of the world. The only thing we can do is validate the experience that people are going through in this moment. It’s real fear and real grief that needs to be watched, watched and shared.”
Meanwhile, if a conversation feels overwhelming, it’s okay to walk away from it, said Aaron Mueller, MD, a licensed clinical social worker in Valley Stream, New York. “If you need to step away for a minute and go to another room, feel encouraged to do so,” he said.
Pooja Sharma, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California, said one reason recent violent events affected so many people’s mental health is that they occurred in settings where people would normally feel safe.
Sharma said the shooting took place in “a club where people go to socialize and have a night out, a shop where people go to work and shop before a holiday”. “When our safe place becomes a place of trauma, we as a society can no longer rely on these places to provide safety, which leads to unexpected distress and confusion.”
Therapists note that violent events can be traumatic even for those not directly affected by them, especially for people who have experienced past trauma. And many people have not yet had time to process recent events, and may begin to do so during the holiday break.
Elizabeth Rieger, a licensed social worker in Beavercreek, Ohio, said one of her LGBTQ clients is dealing with trauma after the Club Q shooting.
“She struggles with the fact that she was so marginalized in her family for being LGBTQ+ and was never allowed to live her real, real life,” Rieger said. “Hearing what happened at Club Q makes her feel even more traumatized by her life experience.”
Black therapists say they’ve developed unfortunate experience counseling people of color who often don’t feel safe in their communities or public spaces because of police brutality, racism, and microaggressions in the workplace.
Combined trauma disproportionately affects people of color — not just during national tragedies, but in everyday life, said Mueller, who specializes in mental health and wellness for black men. “There is always this hypervigilance, this hyper awareness where you may not be present, or you may have this constant heaviness,” he said.
It’s important for people to feel emotions like despair, said Lakeisha Sullivan, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Atlanta.
On the flip side of despair is justified anger and anger at the situation. “These are the feelings that should not be turned off because we can use them constructively,” she said. “Using anger in this way helps us keep the pressure for change and helps us set limits on how we allow ourselves and others to be treated. This is the most powerful way to handle situations of this magnitude.”
Experts say the key is not to let these feelings become destructive.
“Allow yourself to feel, but don’t allow yourself to live there. Create an action plan to control those feelings,” Mueller said.
Several experts said it’s a good idea to take breaks from social media and the news during traumatic events. Mueller said distractions like going to a museum or reading a book can help. Sharma suggested exercising, cooking, gardening, and listening to music. Prayer can help, for those who are religious, as can meditation and asking for support from those close to you.
“If you’re thinking about something going on in the world and you can’t get that thought out of your head, try reorienting yourself,” Rieger said. “Take a walk. Connect with people. Pick a book that will help reorient you or watch a TV series that will redirect your mind away from thinking about what you heard on the news this morning.”
Experts say a common emotion after tragic events is feeling helpless. Focusing on the things over which you have some control can help. Planning for emergencies, noting where to find emergency exits, and thinking about how to protect yourself in unsafe situations are all ways to deal with feeling helpless, Johnson said.
“Creating some sense of control over the situation, knowing where the exits are, and that gives some sense of control,” she said.
Another way to feel in control, Slater said, is to focus your energy on volunteering and helping your community.
“The antidote is altruism,” she said. “We may not be able to stop gun violence across the country, but what can we do in our community to build people up, to give back, to be part of something that feels good?”