11 Ways To Cope with the Learned Helplessness and Secondary Trauma After Mass Shootings
Houston, Texas, June 10, 2022
Still reeling from the aftermath of the mass shooting in Uvalde, parents and students grapple with one of the most palpable questions on their minds after the horrific massacre.
How do we cope with the learned helplessness, the sorrow and shock after inexplicable events like Uvalde? What makes the trauma even more disconcerting is the lack of action that persists after each shooting unfolds. In 157 days into 2022, there have been 247 mass shootings, defined as 4 or more victims shot, according to Gun Violence Archive. The difficult truth is that there have been more mass shootings than days in the year so far.
Delving further into the concept of learned helplessness and secondary trauma from America’s mass shooting epidemic is University of Houston’s Dr. Ezemenari Obasi, Founder and Director of HEALTH Research Center for Addictions Research & Cancer Prevention. When a single traumatic event occurs, humans are jolted into action, emitting a significant release of adrenaline which prepares you for fight or flight. Now that these traumatic events and mass shootings are perpetually repeated in America, humans have begun to feel numb to the incessant gun violence.
“When you’re exposed to traumatic events repeatedly, you don’t believe you have control anymore. You don’t feel like you can be a change agent anymore,” Dr. Obasi said. “At some point these experiences are so incessant that people begin to lose motivation to do anything about it and no longer have any expectations that meaningful change is obtainable.”
If you’re feeling outraged and overwhelmed about the gun violence epidemic in America, Dr. Obasi highlighted eleven steps to help navigate the sense of learned helplessness and secondary trauma following the Uvalde mass shooting. The remedy to learned helplessness is ultimately taking steps toward a healthier situation and gaining control of what is within your realm of control.
1) Initiate a conversation: “If we don’t initiate the conversation with our kids, they will hear about it somewhere else. On some level as parents, we have to think about—are we in the mental state to be able to have an effective conversation? While we worry about the fragility of our children, it’s really our anxiety that’s the bigger issue. When we’re ready, some open-ended questions to start these conversations might include, “It seems like you’ve got a lot of things on your mind right now. What are you working through? Have you heard what happened? What are your friends saying about it? How are you feeling about? When you pose questions like this, you show a sense of empathy.”
2) Instill hope: “As a parent, you have to acknowledge the fear but also the heroes in each situation, like expressing, ‘that was a pretty tragic thing that happened at the school, but if you paid closer attention, you could also see the heroes in the process.’ I think it’s important to provide a context for what took place while also expressing comfort and instilling hope.”
3) Talk about a plan of action: “One of the ways of managing some of the anxiety is to have a plan in place. For example, you might tell your child to hide first, then text where they are. I was imagining being one of those parents and wanting to jump the gate, but potentially not knowing where my son would be. Having a family plan in place is helpful in this era of gun violence and mass shootings.”
4) Limit their media exposure to reduce secondary trauma: “I think about secondhand trauma and how important it is to limit children’s exposure to graphic images. I find myself tearing up every time I turn on the news and hear a personal story about it. When you hear an 8-year-old say, ‘I don’t want to go back to school because I’m afraid they will shoot me next’—how can you walk away from that feeling OK? How can that not transfer onto your child? When we have these mass shootings and high-profile cases, you see the images over and over on the news. It’s so important to limit media exposure.”
5) Focus on what you can do to be a change agent early on: “We’re actually building a generation of kids who can fix things that their parents may have failed to achieve significant progress on. Think about issues of racism or homophobia. Regardless of our personal views, our children do better with these issues than our grandparents did. I recall taking my son to participate in protests for George Floyd. This is what activism looks like—look at the outpouring of love and support. We want to teach them that our country ultimately will rally to do the right thing, and we can be a part of the process. That activism early on instills a sense of agency.”
6) Keeping the event in the public eye: “At the end of the day, keeping this story in the news cycle in and of itself is impactful. A lot of these politicians want this story to fade away, so they can move on. But if we force the conversations to linger, highlight common sense solutions, demonstrate this is what their constituents want, they will be forced to make the change that is needed, or risk being voted out of office.”
7) Activism on social media: “In addition to the letters to your elected officials, maybe it’s a Tik Tok video or meme that goes viral. We also live in an age where video footage can bring the masses to the scene of the tragedy and make it more real—easier to comprehend what happened. We must get helpful information out there, so that there is increased public awareness without adding to the trauma that was already created.”
8) Learned Optimism from Learned Helplessness: “We’ve heard the thoughts and prayers. No disrespect, but this doesn’t change anything structurally that could prevent future tragedies. We needed strategies that help us work through this learned helplessness. It’s important to have conversations with like-minded people. We can work together to explore similar goals we might have and how to put plans together to move the needle for some of these goals. Unfortunately, it’s a 5–10-year plan and not a 6-month plan. We must think about the long game. Maybe the next generation can benefit from our hard work. You don’t want to give in and stay stuck. You’ve got to figure out what the baby steps are that can gain momentum in ways that offer a greater sense of control.
9) Moving into Healthier Spaces: “The reality is we’re living in an increasingly more toxic environment, which is fueling some of the mental health crises we are witnessing. Experiences of anxiety, depression, substance use, and so on is really taking a toll on our potential, our purpose. Being in a healthy space can facilitate learning, productivity, and quality of life. It’s no wonder that our chronic defunding of education, infrastructure, and mental health services is leading to a deterioration in American society. We’re taking away what made us great, and we’re paying for it.”
10) Talk to loved ones, friends and family who are hurting: “When people reach out and say ‘hey can we have a conversation, that’s a cry for help. It’s also a sign of courage because it’s difficult to admit that something is overwhelming at the point at which you’re willing to admit that. You need to be there to be able to hold that conversation with them. That social support component is critical and really protects us from further harm. It allows people to see how they’re not alone and how they’re seeing things in a similar way. It provides a platform for building a collaboration towards making the changes that are needed.
11) Engaging in healthy outlets and activities: “It’s important to have good outlets, engaging in extracurricular activities. This gives the body the fuel that it needs to move forward. Puts you in a place of readiness to take much needed action. This is so much healthier than being stuck in the house in isolation and ruminating about all those things that may be outside of your control.”
By Alison Medley
Interview Opportunities Dr. Ezemenari Obasi
Contact: Alison Medley Phone: 713.320.0933 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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