Supporting Your Mental Health in the Aftermath of a School Shooting
Teachers may find that cognitive behavioral therapy practices help them deal with intense emotions of fear and sadness.
I was a sophomore in high school when the Columbine High School shooting changed the course of how we view school safety. Now, I’m a high school English teacher and mother of two high school students. Nothing has changed in legal policies to protect teachers and students. I stay in the classroom and report to work because my heart is there. But thoughts come into my mind as I see another school shooting on the news… thoughts that scare me. Seeing footage of a shooter doesn’t help the situation; it just continues to sensationalize it for the country and we live in fear. What do we do with our fear on a day-to-day basis?
There are many articles and blogs on how to talk to children in times of violence. This is important, but how can we talk to ourselves in these moments? How do we support our own mental health as educators in the aftermath of news of a school shooting?
Before I move on, I want to note that I’m not a mental health professional. I will tell you that my almost two-decade career in K–12 education has caused me trauma, and I have sought out the professional help I needed. I’m writing this from a place of love for my colleagues and experience. The professional help that I received was rooted in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). This is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that teaches people how to deal with intense emotions like constant fear and sadness. People learn how to regulate their emotions in situations of stress and have better relationships with themselves and others.
Work On Acknowledging Cognitive Distortions
In DBT, there is an emphasis on dealing with cognitive distortions and “walking the middle path.” Sometimes, it comes down to acknowledging in your mind that you have fearful thoughts. We worry a lot—it’s natural to worry—and we have to understand that there are some things we can take action on and some we just can’t control. It comes down to understanding that we have discomfort with certain situations and we have to let them pass. Thoughts are stories that are told by our mind, and we need to be able to find a healthy balance on what thoughts are good for us and what thoughts aren’t.
Weeks after the news of the recent school shooting in Nashville, my mind was focused on the images that I saw in the media. I’m a worrier. I worry about myself, my own children and family, and my colleagues and students’ well-being all the time.
However, I have to tell my mind, “Yes, I am scared and I will always worry. These are thoughts that I have to cope with, and they will always be there. But I have to let myself take care of my family and my students and be productive for their sake because my worrying will lead me to sadness that will not be good for any of us.” It might sound like I am being harsh on myself, but having consistent thoughts like this can lead into longer periods of depression, which aren’t good for me or anyone around me.
Work on YOur Emotional Regulation
One thing to remember is that all emotions can help us in different ways—working on our emotional regulation can mean working on our own resilience. A method in DBT called ABC is about just that.
The A is about working to accumulate positive experiences. After we have let emotions pass, it’s important to do something that makes us happy. The B is about building mastery. Build mastery in something you enjoy that isn’t school related. The C stands for cope ahead of time. You and your students have seen some awful and scary news footage. Cope to think about how you will speak to your students prior to talking to them, or cope with what you will do when you have fears and intrusive thoughts.
When I’ve received tough news about personal or work experiences, I’ve learned that I need to first give myself space to be upset and that my feelings of sadness, anxiety, or fear are valid. But, after that period is over, I need to accumulate positive experiences. Maybe I’ll watch a funny movie with my kids or have a girls’ night out. Next, I take on an activity that I continue to build mastery in. Lately, this has been writing, yoga, or hiking.
Then, I cope ahead. Whether it’s a conversation I’m scared to have, a fear of rejection, or a “How am I going to explain this to my students?” moment, I cope by thinking, “Well, this is the worst thing that can happen in this situation, and here’s how I will manage it.” Usually, the outcome isn’t as bad as I think it will be.
Ways To Self-Soothe
There are moments when our fear takes us to a place where we panic. We hold trauma in our body, and our thoughts can be so intrusive that they may cause us extreme stress.
TIPP is an acronym that supports interventions to calm the body’s stress. The T stands for temperature reduction. If I find myself in a moment of panic, I try to put water on my face or use a cold compress. Others may need movement to calm their body in a tense state. I stands for intense exercise. Neither of these methods may work for you. The first P stands for paced breathing. The second P stands for progressive muscle relaxation, and this can be done through stretching and restorative yoga poses.
For me, I learned to practice yoga regularly. Through the practice, I learned how to use my breath as a tool in tough situations. From hearing a scary sound in the hall (sometimes a door shutting too loud can unfortunately lead you to expect the worst) to fearing a tough outcome in a meeting, the breath is something that I lean on.
I know many people will read this article and say, “Educators shouldn’t need articles like this or feel this way.” The reality is, we do. We're in a profession that's taxing and stressful right now. I'll be the first person to say that our society needs more access to mental health support than it does to firearms. Yes, advocacy is important, and contacting our representatives to change laws is critical. We know that legislators need to do more, and we‘ll continue to elevate our voices as much as we can. At the same time, we have to take care of ourselves as we push for change.
If you find yourself still consistently struggling, I encourage you to seek professional support if you need it. There’s no judgment if you do. We’re all in this together.