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At least 19 students and two teachers were killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, marking one of the deadliest school shootings since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a decade ago.
The mass shooting also comes just weeks after 10 people were shot and killed in a racist attack at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
In Uvalde, all of the injuries and deaths took place in one classroom at Robb Elementary School, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Law enforcement officials killed the 18-year-old shooter, and a motive has not yet been established.
News of the shooting spread quickly on social media, with many parents, lawmakers, and public figures expressing shock and outrage that such a horrific tragedy has happened in the U.S. yet again.
With reports of this most recent mass shooting in Texas joining a growing list of alarming headlines, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.
If you feel like you’re struggling, don’t brush it off. Experts say you could be dealing with something known as vicarious trauma.
What is vicarious trauma?
Vicarious trauma “develops as a result of traumatic material we have been exposed to, directly or indirectly, in our personal or professional lives,” says trauma expert Olga Phoenix.
“Often it is ongoing exposure to traumatic events,” she says, citing things like news or social media coverage of police brutality, mass shootings, and the death toll as a result of the pandemic. “Traumatic material then accumulates and begins to impact us cumulatively, like a snowball thrown on the top of the mountain that eventually becomes an avalanche."
What are the symptoms of vicarious trauma?
Vicarious trauma can cause a “multitude of symptoms” that can impact you on a physical, psychological, behavioral, spiritual, cognitive, and relational level, Phoenix says. Those include:
Physical: rapid pulse/breathing, headaches, impaired immune response, fatigue, depression
Psychological: feelings of powerlessness, numbness, anxiety, fearfulness, disillusionment
Behavioral: irritability, sleep and appetite changes, isolation from friends and family, substance abuse
Spiritual: loss of purpose, questioning the meaning of life, feeling useless
Cognitive: cynicism, pessimism, hopelessness, preoccupation with traumatic events and imagery
Relational: inability to connect, aloneness, lack of personal space, withdrawal, lack of interest in sex, lack of friends
Who is at risk for it?
People at the highest risk have some personal connection to trauma, says Jamil Stamschror-Lott, LICSW, a social worker and co-founder of Creative Kuponya. “You can have vicarious trauma because your trauma is being triggered from historical or personal experiences,” he explains. For example, seeing photos of parents crying while waiting to see if their children survived the shooting can make you think of your own family and how you would feel in that situation.
The actual triggers for the trauma can vary from person to person, Stamschror-Lott adds.
How do I deal with vicarious trauma?
If you feel like you’re struggling, there are a few things you can do to help yourself cope now and in the future.
Limit how much news you take in. Staying informed is important, but doomscrolling rarely leads to anything good. “Constantly visualizing the event is likely to make symptoms worse,” Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio. Stamschror-Lott agrees. “Limit the news as much as possible. It’s too much by nature,” he says. TV news in particular can be triggering, he says, because it can show actual video of what happened.
Practice deep breathing. Saltz recommends doing “paced deep breathing” when you feel your anxiety levels shoot up. Take a deep breath in, hold it for a few counts, and then slowly let it out. You can also try this 4-7-8 breathing technique. Or follow this box breathing video:
Go for walk. Being active “helps stimulate other areas of your brain,” Stamschror-Lott says. Going outside can also help get your mind off of what’s happening on the news, he says.
Focus on your sleep. Mental health-boosting behaviors like getting a good night’s rest can help build your reserves for those moments when you may feel triggered. “Be proactive,” Stamschror-Lott says. “You cannot play defense all the time. If you’re playing defense the entire game, more than likely you’re losing and getting blown away. You have to start playing offense to take care of yourself.” (These sleep apps might make a difference.)
Nurture your relationships. “One of the greatest contributors to our resilience and wellbeing is the quality of our relationships with ourselves, with our loved ones, and with our community,” Phoenix says. Having strong relationships with friends, family, and support groups help give you a feeling of safety and belonging and, as Phoenix says, “act as a protective barrier against life stresses and vicarious trauma.” This can be as simple as having an outdoor meet-up with your friends, she says.
Talk to a therapist. Stamschror-Lott says it’s crucial to speak with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma.
Remind yourself that you're strong. Remember that you've been through stressful and challenging situations in the past. In fact, Phoenix says that building resilience is one of the best ways to handle vicarious trauma. "Fostering resilience offers us not only a priceless opportunity to handle stress and adversity more effectively, but with commitment and practice, actually affords us a sustainable state of wellbeing, happiness, and overall life satisfaction despite what was happening in the world or our lives," she says.
Parents should give themselves permission to feel.
It’s "normal” to feel a “strong sense of empathy for others,” says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, an assistant professor at NYU and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. “Try to process your emotions and not bury them,” she says.
Understanding that you probably won't wake up tomorrow and have all these thoughts disappear is key, too. "It may take a day or two to regain equilibrium, and that’s okay," says Arianna Galligher, LISW-S, a social work supervisor and associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Harness your emotions and turn them into action.
It can also be helpful to use this moment as inspiration to “take control," says licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. You can take this time to learn more about what safety measures are in place at your child’s school and vote for lawmakers who promise to act on gun control legislation.
It's also appropriate to ask for additional precautions if the spaces your children inhabit appear to be lacking, says Stamschror-Lott.
Mayer also recommends doing what you can to make sure your own family is safe—and verbalizing that. “Give them frequent and meaningful messages that they are safe. They need this security right now,” he says. “The pain of a tragedy like this is amplified when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and lost.”
Talking with your kids about traumatic events is a good thing.
If you’re wondering whether you should talk to your children about traumatic events, Mayer says the answer is simple: Yes, you should. Otherwise, kids could hear about them from someone else first.
Santos recommends not waiting for your child to ask questions before speaking about the shooting. "Ask them what they heard, what kids are saying, and what questions they have," she says.
And Gallagher stresses the importance of being aware of having the news on the in the background when your children are home. Work on conveying a sense of calm and reassure them that schools are safe places, says Dr. Gail Saltz. After that, ask your kids to "think together about ways to feel helpful…whether that’s fundraising, or conveying feelings to those in need."
But make sure that you are in the right headspace before you start the discussion, says Melissa Santos, Ph.D., division chief of Pediatric Psychology at Connecticut Children's Hospital. "There is a reason why on planes they say to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others," she adds.
Gallagher recommends that you “meet your child where they’re at,” and keep in mind that some details may be too much for them. If you have a younger child in school, for example, you could explain about how a “bad guy” got into a school and injured children. And then talk to your child about what to do if a similar situation happened in their school—reassuring them that you and their school are doing everything you can to keep them as safe as possible.
“If they’re an older teen, you can have more of a high-level conversation,” Gallagher says.
Sources of safety can also be key. "Transitional objects like a baby blanket or stuffed animal or similar items that have a strong association with comfort and safety," says Stamschror-Lott, adding that parents can work with school staff to accommodate students bringing these items to school.
Overall, Gallagher says that parents should let children know that they’re “not in imminent danger, to the best of your knowledge, and that your goal is to help them to be safe.” Still, she adds, “it can be okay for children to realize that this impacts you as an adult as well.”
Meet the experts: Sara Stamschror-Lott, MA, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist whose practice focuses on individual and family trauma informed therapy services.
Gail Saltz, MD, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and the host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio.
Trauma expert Olga Phoenix is the author of Victim Advocate’s Guide to Wellness: Six Dimensions of Vicarious Trauma-Free Life.
Jamil Stamschror-Lott, LICSW, is a social worker and co-founder of Creative Kuponya.
Clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD, an assistant professor at NYU and co-host of the Mind in View podcast.
Melissa Santos, Ph.D., is the division chief of Pediatric Psychology at Connecticut Children's.
Licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., is the author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life.
Arianna Galligher, LISW-S, is a social work supervisor and associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
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