How to Manage Anxiety After a High School Shooting

[Image] An empty high school hallways with the lights on and teal blue lockers. The text on the image reads "How to Manage Anxiety After a High School Shooting.." Interfaith Bridge Counseling offers in-person counseling and video counseling for tweens, teens, and young adults in Denver, Colorado.

If you’re a teen or even the parent of a teen, the fear and anxiety of a school lockdown or school shooting is all too real. In 2018 alone, more than 64 school lockdowns turned into school campus shootings. It’s as if school lockdowns and school shootings are becoming our new norm, establishing an all-too-familiar cycle of fear, devastation, and loss.

And unfortunately for us, when we are forced to live life according to this new norm of school lockdowns and school shootings, it affects our lives in numerous ways. The first is that school lockdowns and school shootings are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Whether you’re experiencing them in-person, through the news, or on your social media timeline, school lockdowns and school shootings pop up regularly. We see information about them without searching for it.

Not only does living in this new norm of school lockdowns and mass shootings affect us physically, it also affects us emotionally and mentally. In fact, there’s a chance that you may find yourself questioning how to cope with a variety of new or different feelings. The aftermath of a school lockdown or school shooting may leave you feeling overwhelmed, hyper-anxious, or even numb. You may also find that you experience sudden impulsive behaviors, that it can be hard to remember certain thoughts or memories, and it can even be difficult to concentrate.

It makes complete sense that the fear and anxiety of a school lockdown or school shooting carries on with you, long after the fact. But it doesn’t have to stay this way - when you are able to create a network of support and care, and start implementing real-life coping techniques, you can begin the steps to managing your anxiety after a school lockdown or school shooting.

Check out these 7 ways on how to mentally survive your high school lockdown or high school shooting:

0. Listen & Follow Protocol

Before you can really take care of yourself mentally and emotionally during or after a school lockdown or school shooting, you must take care of yourself physically. Which means, if you are reading this in the event of a lockdown or shooting, your physical safety is your number one priority. Most schools and their staff have a protocol in place for alerting each student, parent, and staff member about a lockdown. If your school staff is with you, you will want to listen and follow their directions. But if you find yourself without a school staff member, you can remember to follow the Safe and Sound Schools’ Stay Safe Choices: Get Out or Keep Out, and Hide Out Protocol:

  • Get Out: This is for when you have the option to get away from the danger, such as leaving the school campus or classroom, and can physically move yourself to a safer place, much like in the case of a fire or fire drill.

  • Keep Out: If it isn’t possible to get out or get away, you then want to think about how to keep the danger out of where you are, like locking the door and then barricading it with furniture.

  • Hide Out: Finally, once you Get Out or Keep Out the danger, you will want to Hide Out. Hide Out is where you quietly hide from the danger and wait until the danger is completely cleared.

But most importantly, remember that no one will be angry with you for breaking the rules, like throwing things, entering a staff-only area, or leaving campus, if it means you will be safe. And if you think it might be hard to remember the Stay Safe Choices: Get Out or Keep Out, and Hide Out Protocol, take a screenshot of this PDF’s first page and keep it in your photos for easy access.

1. Stop. Breathe. Think.

Now intense or traumatic experiences and the feelings or behaviors that come along afterwards unfold at their own pace, on their own timeline. And whether we like it or not, there’s not a set expiration on our feelings or behaviors surrounding intense or traumatic experiences. In fact, if anything, after experiencing a school lockdown or school shooting, you may find yourself questioning who you were before a school lockdown or school shooting, who you are now that you’ve experienced one, and what your new normal will or can look like.

The first step to answering those three questions is to

1) Stop whatever you are doing and check-in with yourself, and ask: how am I feeling?

2) Breathe in and out a few times, focusing on your breathe and giving space for your thoughts, emotions, and reactions.

3) Think about what you know to be true and what you know to be untrue, giving room for your perspective and knowledge of self to have a voice in how you’re feeling and how you’re managing.

If you’d like an app to help you learn how to Stop. Breathe. Think. Check out the Stop, Breathe & Think App on iTunes & Google Play.

2. Unpack Your Feelings

Most of the ways that we’ve been taught about how to cope with the aftermath of a school lockdown or school shooting is about what to do in the moment of one. We haven’t actually been taught how to prepare for the before and the after of them, and this often leaves us without the skills to unpack our personal feelings. In part, this has to do with our biological need to compartmentalize intense experiences of the present moment. And in some ways, our cultural norms here in America have taught us that making space for the before and after of school lockdowns and school shootings isn’t really okay. Essentially, this means that what is happening to our brains and our emotions in relation to a school lockdown or school shooting is that our brains are now simultaneously preparing for the next school lockdown or school shooting while also trying to recover from the last one, without much support on how to do so. This then throws our physical, emotional, and mental states into nervous system dysregulation.

To unpack your feelings in the aftermath of a school lockdown or school shooting, it is important to understand that your ideas of what is normal and what is not normal may no longer be true for you. Your feelings are real and, at the same time, won’t always make sense to you. Events like prom or getting an A on an exam may no longer feel exciting or worth your time. If you’ve lost a friend because of a school lockdown or school shooting, you may find that you forget that they’re gone and go to text them…but they feel angry, confused, and sad. All of this is okay. Let your mind and your body react the way it wants to. Trust that you know your mind and your body better than anyone else. And if you need too, say what you feel out loud to yourself or even write it down.

3. Set Your Limits

Living in the 21st century means that we have instant access to information. And when a traumatic or intense experience occurs, that information often spreads quickly across our social media platforms and other media outlets. I often think of the Parkland Shooting and how quickly I learned about the tragedy that unfolded. It does not make you a bad or unsupportive person to set limits on what you do or do not want to see on your timelines. Nor does it make you a bad or unsupportive person to tell people that you don’t want to talk about particular events or stories. Acknowledging that something is too much for you right now or too similar to something you’ve experienced is not turning your back on the significance of the situation. Instead, it is taking care of yourself so that you can eventually help others.

If you’re finding that news, articles, or conversations are eliciting negative thoughts or feelings, even painful reactions, it can be helpful to add filters or mute notifications on your social media platforms. On Facebook, you can mute a person’s posts. On Twitter, you can mute words, phrases, usernames, emojis, and hashtags to help limit what you see. Through Snapchat, you can use the Do Not Disturb future to secretly mute friends and groups. And on Instagram, you can personalize your feed, both through posts and stories, to control what you do and do not see. Regardless of what you choose to mute or not see, setting your limits can help you achieve some peace of mind when needed.

4. Balance Out.

Whether you’ve experienced a traumatic event in-person or through social media, there is a chance that you may find yourself constantly wondering how to feel normal or like you used to. As this happens, one of the best and most practical things you can do it take the time to learn about what’s going on with the mechanisms of your body, i.e. what your brain is doing subconsciously during high-emotion situations.

Dr.Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell developed a really easy way to think of and understand our brains - make a fist with your thumb tucked underneath your fingers. Your fist now represents your brain, while your wrist and forearm represent your spinal cord. The bottom of your palm is your brainstem, your thumb is the midbrain, and the back of your hand and fingers are your cerebral cortex. All of these parts are meant to communicate with one another. When you are feeling calm, logical, and able to understand what you are feeling or how you are behaving, our brains look a lot like this fist. But when you’ve experienced something like a school lockdown or school shooting, it is easy enough for your brain to flip its lid…much like if your fingers lift up and expose your midbrain and brainstem. When this happens, you need to balance out and reconnect your brain’s communication lines. Here are some easy ways to reconnect your brain and balance yourself out:

Drink through a straw, Yell into a pillow or hoodie, Eat something crunchy, Read a book, Shake your head quickly, Swing your arms around, Doodle or sketch on a paper, Hug someone or hug yourself, Dim the lights or make the light brighter, Play with a hair tie on your wrist, Do some jumping jacks, Breathe to the count of 4 and then repeat, Clap your hands together tightly, release, and repeat, Take a bath or a shower, Play a sport, Listen to music, or Play a video game.

5. Reach Out to Your Loved Ones.

When having experienced a school lockdown or school shooting, it is normal to feel alone and scared. Just the thought of opening up and sharing your feelings, what you experienced or are experiencing may seem impossible. However, it is important to try to find the words and the courage to reach out to the people you love. Opening up to them is essential for your recovery and for them to understand how to best support you.

Once you’ve decided that you’re ready to open up, the first step is to make a list of who you would like to talk to, such as your mom, dad, step-parent, grandparent, siblings, friends, and more. When you are done brainstorming your list of people, then narrow it down to a few people that really feel comfortable both talking to and physically be around. The next step is figuring out what to say and how to say it. Additionally, if you’re in the midst of a school lockdown or school shooting and you’re trying to find the words to connect with your loved ones because you’re worried it's your last opportunity, the following activity will also be helpful:

  • Grab a piece of paper and pen/cil or your phone and open up the notes app. Write 2-4 bullet points of what you would like your loved one to understand about your experience.. Examples: I don’t really understand what is happening to me ever since my school’s lockdown. When we were in the lockdown, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye and that I loved you. etc.

  • Now that you have 2-4 bullet points of what you would like to share with your loved one, fill in the blanks of the following template. If you’re in the midst of a school lockdown or school shooting, skip down to the second template:

    Template #1:

    Dear _______,

    Recently, I have experienced a school lockdown (or shooting). I insert 2-4 bullet points of what you would like your loved one(s) to understand. This has been a really difficult experience for me and I’d like your support in how to manage my feelings.

    I love you,

    Sign Your Name

    Template #2:

    Dear ______,

    I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but I am in a school lockdown (or shooting). Right now, I feel insert how you are feeling right now (scared, sad, confused, etc.). What I would like you to know is insert 2-3 bullet points of what you would like your loved one(s) to understand.

    I love you,

    Sign Your Name

6. Talk to Someone & Talk Often.

After you’ve had a traumatic or intense experience like a school lockdown or school shooting, it can be helpful to seek therapy. The right therapist can support you in making sense of what you are feeling and thinking, and help you move through what you’ve experienced. The right therapist can also help you identify what you need, what you’re feeling, and even…provide a space for silence.

Seeking therapy however, can be a bit difficult for some people, especially if you’ve never been to therapy or if you do not have insurance. Here at Interfaith Bridge Counseling, we offer low-cost individual and group therapy, online and in-person here in Colorado. If you’re not in Colorado, you can find low-cost mental health services in your area through Open Path Collective or text the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

7. Treat Yourself.

Each and every single one of us will react differently to a school lockdown or school shooting. It is important for you to be aware of how you are feeling, how you are behaving, and what you are experiencing. Typically, this is where I recommend looking at the two branches of self-care. But when you’ve experienced something like a school lockdown or school shooting, the branches of self-care can sometimes minimize or trigger negative reactions. It can also be more overwhelming to try and make room for both branches of self-care because you may just be trying to wake up and move through your daily actions without feeling upset or hopeless.

This is where treating yourself comes in - you’ve been through a lot. And whether you believe it or not, you deserve to distract yourself and try to find a glimpse of joy or hope again. Binge watch a Netflix show, read a book, go to the gym, make a playlist, or eat some ice cream.

Managing the aftermath of a school lockdown or school shooting can be isolating and full of anxiety. But with some support, care, and implementation of real-life coping techniques, you can start on the track to healing.

Don’t forget - I offer individual counseling, in-person and via video, for teens here in Colorado where you can get dedicated support. Click here to learn more

Until Next Time,

[Image] A written signature, in black with a heart, reading "Lena H McCain."

Lena McCain, MA | Tween, Teen, & Twenty-Somethings Therapist, Founder

About Lena McCain, MA

Lena McCain is our Tween, Teen, and Twenty-Somethings Therapist as well as Founder here at Interfaith Bridge Counseling. She holds a Masters in Clinical Mental Health: Mindfulness-based Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University and is an LPC candidate. Her drive and passions lie in the realm of Interfaith Relations and Youth Collaboration, which she brings to Interfaith Bridge Counseling with over 12 years of experience and with an emphasis on one’s discovery of self, spirituality, and multicultural diversity. Lena’s expertise in spirituality and the therapeutic world acts as a reminder to our community, teens, and young adults that they are not alone in their experience of life.

[Image] A woman standing in front of a graffiti background with her arms raised above her head and her hands landing on a red beret. The woman is wearing a black long-sleeved crop top and a black high-waited skit with a silver zipper down the front. This woman's name is Lena McCain, she is both the Founder of Interfaith Bridge Counseling and the Group Facilitator of Teen Spirituality, a teen group at Interfaith Bridge Counseling.