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8 ways to handle the anxiety that follows public violence all too familiar in Colorado

The Boulder shooting is another traumatic event in a state that’s seen far too many. Psychiatrist Dr. Carl Clark and Mental Health Center of Denver offer ideas for coping.

Claire Garrison, right, consoles Jeanne Walsh during the vigil at the Boulder County Courthouse on March 24, 2021, paying tribute to 10 people who died in one of the worst shootings in Colorado history. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Are you suddenly rethinking all of your daily routines, and wondering just how many could be disrupted by violence? Unfortunately, that’s normal.

Does a mundane trip to the grocery store suddenly open doors to fear and dread? Again, that is our new reality. With Colorado now having seen mass shootings at schools, at entertainment centers, at grocery stores, it is impossible to entirely escape those thoughts. 

That does not mean there is nothing you can do with the feelings. Professionals who themselves have lived through multiple violent Colorado tragedies have recommendations on how to cope with traumatic events without letting them consume you. We checked in with psychiatrist Dr. Carl Clark, CEO of the large nonprofit clinical provider Mental Health Center of Denver, on common advice for their thousands of clients. 

Clark talked about what he does for himself, and what he encourages other people to do if they feel traumatized by the shooting in Boulder or other public violence: 

  • As with many forms of anxiety, stress, panic, fear or even addiction, the first step is to admit to yourself you are struggling, and stop beating yourself up for that. “Acknowledge you feel it,” Clark said. That simple step, studies have shown, can move the issue from the reactionary “fight or flight” part of your brain, Clark said, and into the problem-solving portions of your brain. 

“And then you can sort what you have control over from what you don’t,” he said. 

  • Keep track of how much you are paying attention to media about the violent event — whether it’s video footage, news stories or social media scanning. You can’t be in control of all events, but you can control your focus on them. Seeing images or words over and over does have an impact. “You feel trauma hearing about someone else’s trauma,” Clark said. 

“You could watch this 24/7. Limiting it is hard because you want to know,” Clark said. “But you need a break from it, too.”

  • Be mindful of who in your household is also hearing and thinking about these events, and try to adjust accordingly. Don’t let younger children watch live TV coverage. Think about what’s on the radio in the car. How you talk to a 3-year-old about Boulder is different from how you talk to someone who is 22, Clark said. 

With younger children, address the questions in front of you, and see if that’s enough, Clark said. Don’t try to explain or justify the entire universe. Especially at bedtime, kids have basic questions that can take basic answers: “A bad man hurt people. You are safe. We will keep you safe. Yes, that happened, he is in jail. He can’t hurt anybody else.” 

  • Build a plan if that helps you feel more in control. It’s human, and often useful, to ask what you would do in the same situation, Clark said. Yes, it’s terrible that we may now walk into grocery stores and spend time thinking about where would make a good hiding spot. But it can help. 

“It’s clear many people in that grocery store had a plan,” Clark said. “They got out of the building or found a place to be in hiding. And as terrifying as it is, a lot of people made good decisions.” 

  • Talk with spouses, partners, close friends about how you would want things to be if something happened to you. Thinking about who should take care of your children, for example, can relieve natural protective anxieties and build a useful plan for the future, Clark said. 

“You can think, is my family taken care of, what should I think about, what would I want to happen for my friends and family?”

  • Pick a time of day to think about the event and your anxiety. It is as effective as it is apparently shallow. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is another way that some behavioral psychologists put it. Forcing yourself to go through the motions of the day can put things in perspective and allows small accomplishments to pile up and take the place of larger anxieties. 

“I’m going to think about that at 4 in the afternoon, for as long as it takes,” Clark said. “If you pick a time of day, it lets your brain let loose of the stress until then.” 

  • Keep positive routines like getting enough sleep, exercising, eating right. Taking good care of your body is a good start to giving your mind a chance to feel healthier. Getting outside to move around can be proof that good parts of the world do carry on. 
  • Avoid negative routines, like drinking too much. Clark notes that Colorado tax collections on alcohol have gone way up during the pandemic, indicating a lot of people are self-medicating their anxieties or boredom with excessive alcohol. (Indeed, Colorado alcohol sales tax collections were up 47% in March 2020 over the year before.)

Significantly increasing consumption of alcohol or other mind-altering substances can     cause sleep disruption, mood changes, dependency or chances of addiction. 

“Don’t self-soothe with substances,” Clark said. “Better not to go that direction.” 

More advice about handling stress from public events, and links to resources on where to find deeper help, can be found at MHCD’s web site, at www.mhcd.org

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