Talking heads on TV might try to say that the growing number of mass shootings and domestic terror attacks is our “new normal,” but let me tell you something—for survivors and people affected by these traumatic events, there’s nothing normal about it. I want you to know that the danger is over, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. It’s OK to have strong, often mixed, feelings afterward. You may be emotionally numb, terrified it’s going to happen again, consumed by feelings of survivors’ guilt, or furious at those responsible. You may feel helpless, depressed, or suspicious of everybody who walks by you on the street. Think of it as a completely normal reaction to an abnormal event. Whatever you’re feeling doesn’t mean you’re a weak person—it just means you’ve been through some shit.
I have, too. I was a 9/11 first-responder and spent the months after working on rescue and recovery at the World Trade Center. I saw the bodies. I lost coworkers and friends. And I’ve spent the last 17 years dealing with the aftermath: PTSD and panic disorder. I haven’t been through a mass shooting, but I hope the lessons I’ve learned can help make the days ahead a little easier.
Give yourself time to process. You’re going to need some time to wrap your head around what happened: Accept it, and actually feel your feelings about it. This is 100% the appropriate time for grief and mourning. I know it’s tempting, but don’t self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs (I learned this the hard way). Drinking your feelings away doesn’t really make them go away, it just puts a damper on them and slows down the natural grieving and healing process. Also, don’t make any life-altering decisions. You’re in a highly emotional state right now—it’s not the time to blow your life savings on an Aston Martin or move to Estonia.
Talk about it. Please don’t keep your thoughts and feelings bottled up and to yourself. Express whatever is on your mind. If you want to cry or vent, do it. Your friends and family want to be there for you. That said, don’t be put off if they don’t react the way you’d hope (for example, asking morbid questions like, “What’s the worst thing you saw?”). Unless they’re trained counselors, people often don’t know what to say or the exact right way to do it. It’s important to have someone you trust to talk to, and the best way to do that is to outsource the job and find a counselor, therapist, social worker. Talk to a professional.
Stay connected with other survivors. Sometimes you just need to be around people who know what you’ve been through. It might be helpful to attend funerals and memorial services. The aftermath of a traumatic event can feel incredibly lonely when you feel like nobody gets you. It was oddly comforting for me to talk with others who shared my experience. I not only realized that I wasn’t the only one dealing with these intense feelings, but I felt “normal” around my fellow rescue and recovery workers. And more often than not, we were cracking jokes, exchanging contact info, and looking out for each other in the years since. Almost 18 years later and I’m still talking, texting, listening to and checking in with people from back then. If there’s a support group, you might want to check it out. If there isn’t, you might want to reach out to others and start one.
Get back to being yourself. After you’ve given yourself some time to heal, it’s best to try and ease your way back into your routine. Try to reintroduce the basic things back into your life: Go grocery shopping, see a movie, have dinner with friends and talk about anything but the event. Do the things that you enjoy, even if it feels like a chore at first. It’s important to prevent your fears from taking over your life. For example, you might find being in crowded public place to be stressful (which is totally understandable), but avoidance will lead to more fear and safety behaviors, which will make it even harder and scarier to do the next time, and so on and so on, until you eventually stop trying, and your world shrinks. Go to the places that scare you (maybe bring someone with you the first time) and allow yourself to feel uncomfortable. That’s all it is, a feeling of discomfort that will eventually pass. I really wish I had known enough to do this in the early 00s. For years I avoided socializing, public transportation, downtown Manhattan, driving, and eventually leaving my apartment, all because of fear. It takes a hell of a lot of work to unravel that mess, so learn from my mistakes and get busy living.
Sleep on it. Sleep gets its own section because stress from a traumatic event and sleep problems go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and restlessness can make it difficult to get to sleep at night or get back to sleep after awakening (in a jolt, while dripping with sweat). I’ve been dealing with this pretty hardcore since 2001, so I’ve become something of an amateur sleepologist: Skip caffeine in the afternoons and evenings. Don’t watch stressful videos (or the news) before bed. Go to sleep when you’re tired. Don’t try to force it—that just leads to more stressing and less sleeping. If your mind won’t stop racing, keep it occupied with a guided Yoga Nidra or body-scan meditation before bed to relax yourself into sleep. If meditation isn’t your thing, try reading something boring or listening to music your dentist might play.
Do something positive. What if you could view your traumatic experience as a catalyst for positivity? A lot of survivors use their experiences to try and make the world a better place with charitable foundations and community activism. The best way to honor the people we lost and the part of yourself that has been forever changed is to live your best life and do as much good as possible.
Ask for help. If your situation isn’t improving—you’re still avoiding people, messing up at work, feeling down, and getting into arguments, you should make an appointment with a doctor who can help you. Talk therapy enabled me to think about the event without falling apart. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helped me change some of the fear-based behaviors (avoiding crowds, being hyper-suspicious of people) that were limiting my life. Medication prescribed by a psychopharmacologist helped me deal with symptoms from panic attacks, PTSD, and depression. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with needing therapy or medication. So if some jerk tries to med-shame you or make you feel like there’s something weird about taking care of your mental health, lose their number.