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Dealing with Mass Shootings

Why does the news of another horrific shooting make us fight when we should be banding together?

December 14th, 2012

Tags: Mind, Stress
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school shooting

The number of mass shootings in recent memory is staggering. Children slayed at Sandy Hook Elementry School. August’s shooting outside the Empire State Building in New York City, just a day after shots rang through Chicago. The Batman movie theater massacre in Aurora, CO. And lurking always in the recesses of our minds: Columbine.

In the face of national tragedy, we gravitate toward one another to grieve, to console, to try to comprehend. Each time we rush to the communal solace of the web, where men and women in all parts of the country gather together to express their horror, shock and sadness.

But while newsy tweets and heartfelt hashtags race across the fiber optics, another kind of talk inevitably flares up on comment boards and Facebook: the ever-present, ever-volatile gun control debate.

Why, in a time of national grieving, do we turn so quickly to factions and fighting? It’s actually quite a natural reaction to feeling a lack of control of the world around you, says YouBeauty Psychology Advisor Art Markman, Ph.D.

“As human beings, feeling out of control is one of the most stressful situations you could be in,” he explains. “We respond by wanting to seize control.” But how do you seize control of something you can’t do anything about? You channel your anger and frustrations elsewhere, to related but separate issues. In this case, the question of gun legislation in the United States.

MORE: Finding Strength After 9/11

As Markman says, we have enough experience with gun violence already that we basically have a script for how it’s all going to play out. Someone opens fire—on a city street, in a movie theater, on a college campus or an elementry school—the news outlets cover it, and the gun talk starts.

Discussion boards go from mourning to shouting in nine comments flat.

The stress that comes with feeling out of control pushes people to extreme reactions. Expressing your opinions—publically and fervently—feels like action, which gives you a sense of power. Sitting quietly feels passive and inactive. We’re wired to get heated: Think of it like the flight or fight reaction, manifested on Facebook.

Then layer on top of that a highly politicized issue and an open forum to attack and defend. “Every time there is another example of gun violence, we know that the political discussion is going to get raised again. Therefore there is a defensive reaction on the part of the people who are supporters of gun freedom, trying to forestall any discussion of gun control. And others reinforcing their belief that if guns were harder to come by, you would be safer,” says Markman.

What results are a lot of overzealous typing in all caps and no valuable dialogue or, for that matter, effective emotional release.

MORE: Therapy and Emotional Triggers

The healthy thing to do, he advises, is to get together with friends and talk out your feelings as a group: “These events can cause existential stress or dread because they’re random. There is nothing to be served by getting into screaming matches online, which exacerbates the problem. There’s no discussion or resolution on those boards. It’s counterproductive to yell at each other.”

If you’re stuck at work and can’t get out for a sit-down with people close to you, then find your friends online. Just avoid the digital scrum and opt for an honest, empathetic chat instead.

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