The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: How to deal with ‘so much anxiety’ around mass shootings

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Today, while at a neighborhood pool, I started looking around, realizing there was no way to exit the pool area in the event of a mass shooter. I started to panic, and managed to calm myself down, but I find myself doing this over and over in random stores and locations. I know I can’t be the only one. I remember feeling like this after 9/11 but this seems worse because the shootings are happening everywhere. It feels helpless.

I also feel helpless because our government won’t do anything to even remotely help stop these events from happening. It’s exhausting, scary, and so much anxiety that I don’t normally have. How do we get through this?

— Anxious

Anxious: We work extra hard to remain mindful of what the risks are, how to keep them in perspective, and how to take meaningful action to improve our social and political environment.

The shootings are horrific, unacceptable, and like all terrorism, they perpetuate a culture of fear. Your risk of dying in one of these shootings is still, like it is for everyone else, negligible. As one of about 330,000,000 Americans, you do not in overwhelming likelihood need to case the pool grounds for an exit plan — though if it helps ease your mind to, then do it.

This sounds heartless to say but it's true. Grieve these senseless deaths, and deplore the people and sociopolitical conditions that contribute to them, and work with all the fury you can muster to demand rational legislative measures to stop them — but it is not emotionally or politically effective to fear being randomly shot.

When you think “our government won't do anything to even remotely help stop these events from happening,” your job is to do whatever part you can toward electing responsible leaders — which includes fighting voter suppression, since enfranchisement is as salient an issue as any in a discussion of political leadership.

That’s how we get through this.

Re: Shootings: “Your risk of dying in one of these shootings is still, like it is for everyone else, negligible.” Maybe for White Christians, but it’s a lot more perilous for the rest of us.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: The level of risk does fluctuate from one demographic group to the next, yes, infuriatingly so — another moral outrage for which Americans are on the hook. The advantaged groups in particular. But the difference still is not statistically big enough to justify saying that the risk of getting shot is so high that it’s unsafe to swim in American pools or go to American parades, factories, schools, grocery stores … [Googles “American mass shootings” and browser auto-fills “this week”].

Our outrage levels can’t be high enough until we replace political partisanship with facts and common sense as the basis for our laws, but that doesn’t mean our anxiety levels have to match. It is still appropriate to separate the two, and apply cooling thoughts to our calculation and perception of our individual risk.