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Dealing with collective trauma in the wake of mass shootings


Recent mass shootings at a Walmart in Virginia and a nightclub in Colorado just days apart are still fresh in our minds. But if recent data is any indication, they'll soon be pushed down a long list by newer attacks. There've already been at least 607 mass shootings this year. And according to the Gun Violence Archive, in 2022, the U.S. is on track to have the second-highest number of mass shootings in a year ever recorded. They define a mass shooting as one in which at least four people are shot. Tens of thousands of people are personally touched somehow by these horrifying events every year. And through media coverage, we're all reminded every day of the violence that could reach us, even if statistically, the possibility remains incredibly low.

That fear builds up into what many experts call a collective or secondary trauma, one most of us are not equipped to deal with on our own. We wanted to understand more about this trauma, how to recognize it and what to do about it. So we asked Manuel Zamarripa to join us. He's a psychologist and an expert on dealing with secondary trauma. He's also the co-director and co-founder of the Institute of Chicana/Chicano Psychology, based in Austin, Texas. Manuel Zamarripa, thank you for joining us.

MANUEL ZAMARRIPA: Thank you so much. Good to be here.

DEGGANS: So these recent shootings at a Walmart in Virginia and the Q nightclub in Colorado, they've already been covered massively by news media, and it's had a huge impact on the public. Why do you think so many people feel tied, emotionally and psychologically, to a tragedy they might not be directly connected to?

ZAMARRIPA: Well, I think that one of the wonderful things about people is our ability to empathize. And I think a lot of the times, we can see ourselves in these tragedies. We see a lot of families. We see a lot of everyday people going into places that are typically safe, the places that a lot of us go into. And when these tragedies occur that are so out of the norm and we hear about them so often, it can have that impact where our basic sense of safety sometimes can be questioned, if not threatened, and we begin to see ourselves in these tragedies. And I think that is one of the things that leads to what we call secondary trauma.

DEGGANS: You've advised people to check their emotional bandwidth before engaging in conversations about subjects like this. What do you mean by that?

ZAMARRIPA: Yes. I think that one of the things we try to do when these tragedies impact us is we try to cope. And in trying to cope, the most important thing is being able to connect with other people that are supportive, with other people that can also bring us comfort to reach out because if we continue to take in that same information over and over, our ability to cope becomes overwhelmed. And then that can lead to more sustained symptoms. It can come out physically - headaches, stomachaches. It can come out emotionally. Sometimes we may not be as patient to our kids, our family, our relationships, or we may disconnect from relationships and people that, typically, we have good connections with. So the more we become overwhelmed, the more our coping also becomes overwhelmed. And so we need to check how much of this information we can take in.

DEGGANS: And before it gets to the point where someone's like disconnecting from relationships or treating the people around them badly, are there some warning signs that might provide some sort of indication to people that they're being affected by this trauma?

ZAMARRIPA: Yes, absolutely. I think one that I began to mention was sometimes checking in with our physical symptoms. And that may mean not just headaches or stomachaches but being fatigued at times when we usually are not. And it's really important the way this secondary trauma comes up in our bodies. It's not always necessarily when we're looking at the stories immediately after we've taken all this information. It can come out a few hours, a few days later. As long as we're continuing to take in this information, we may begin to then be more aware of physical symptoms. Sometimes, our patience wanes. Sometimes, we may become more irritable. And those are the things we need to check.

DEGGANS: We - you talk about the impact of taking in this information. I'm wondering if media outlets like ours, I mean, which can deliver news about a mass shooting instantly to your phone, your laptop, your TV screen - do we have any responsibility for generating this secondary trauma? And can we do anything different in how we report on this stuff to make it easier?

ZAMARRIPA: Well, I think there's always a place for responsible reporting and responsible journalism not to exploit the stories that we are seeing and we are hearing and always including, as I've seen in several stories, how to cope. We're reporting this tragedy. Now let's do the work for those that are reading. If you're reading this, what can you do? How can you take care of yourself? And I think that's going to be really important. We need to close a lot of these stories out with those helpful tips and those helpful tools so that as we take this information, we know how it might impact us and what we can do about it.

DEGGANS: You have kind of alluded to this in some previous answers, but I was just wondering, this is going to happen again. People are going to have to cope with this again. What should people do to prepare themselves emotionally when news of the next mass shooting hits the news media?

ZAMARRIPA: We're all going to grieve differently, and we're all going to be affected differently. But to prepare, we should keep those connections that we have, those healthy relations that we have. We should keep those close to our heart. We should continue to feed those really important, healthy interactions, that circle that we have, that support system. And even, you know, if we are not used to it, maybe reaching out to a mental health professional or start looking into what that might look like for us.

DEGGANS: So keep our best relationships close to our heart, and reach out if we need help. That's great advice for a holiday weekend. That was Manuel Zamarripa. He's a psychologist and expert on dealing with secondary trauma. He's also the co-director and co-founder of the Institute of Chicana/Chicano Psychology, based in Austin, Texas. Thanks for joining us.

ZAMARRIPA: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF IBRAHIM'S "SAFFRON AND GREEN TEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.