The Surprising Hidden Benefit Of Our Anxiety (In Response To School Shootings & Other Tragic News)

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Family, Self

Our anxiety serves a deeper purpose.

By the most conservative estimates, the Florida massacre that happened last week was the 7th school shooting this year — a horrifying number by any measure given that the year is not yet seven weeks old. Seventeen people were killed in this most recent shooting, only one of them old enough to vote.

This time, the alleged killer is in custody — a broken young man, who met all the criteria for a risk: anger problems, a history of cruelty to animals, a significant history of loss and trauma, access to weapons having purchased an AR-15 legally, and the presence of an online threat (to become a “professional school shooter” using his real name) that was apparently investigated by FBI officials, but dropped.

And still, he slipped through the cracks of our system and was angry, dangerous, and legally armed.   

How is this OK... and happening again?

How is it that we are not all outraged? How have there been almost 300 school shootings in America since 2013? Will we ever find solutions? Or are we growing complacent — saturated with these painful realities, our overwhelming sense of anxiety, and no traction for a solution that can work?

With so much anxiety and pain to absorb from the news, it isn’t hard to try to push these feelings away without a clear path for action, control, or solutions. With every passing news story of violence, we grow a bit more desensitized, a bit more numb.

The onslaught of violence is overwhelming, and we have no choice but to grow accustomed to it, powerless to change anything and forced to carry on with our daily lives. We hope and pray that our schools and communities are becoming better prepared, and that it doesn’t happen to us. We try not to think about what could happen when we drop our kids off at school.

This is where we are — as individuals, as communities, as a nation. This is where outrage and anxiety are giving way to resignation and saturation.

When we are overwhelmed and don’t feel a sense of control, we shut down and try to distract ourselves from our sense of helplessness.

Anxiety gives way to resignation.  

But is risking the chance of senseless death a reasonable risk for parents to take every day they send their kids to school? Is safety simply too high a bar to expect in our classrooms? Is it really OK to accept this level of risk?

As a parent and psychologist, I don’t think so.

There are loads of potential solutions, and we are far from powerless to find them.

For example, students around the county are mobilizing efforts to pressure lawmakers through rallies, direct communications and even social media. And these efforts are catching momentum. And they are working. President Trump is taking meetings with survivors and gun control measures are currently stalled in Congress, with lawmakers now being forced to focus. Curious how your representatives have voted on gun control? Here is a list you can use to find out.   

Of course, interventions should be broadened beyond gun control to address the more complicated issues of mental health and privacy. Legislators must start connecting these dots, tying together risk factors with operational, common sense limits.

Raw emotions are motivating and give us needed outlets and hope. We are seeing how our collective anxiety can be used to force solutions and needed change. 

Sure, these are big, fundamental and complicated issues to tackle, touching on the very fabric of our culture, our constitution, and our freedoms. But the issue isn’t so much what the solutions might or could be, but more an issue of focus.

We need not be resigned to accept these levels of risk for our families, and society.

We can solve this, if we stay focused and engaged. And if we allow ourselves to feel our anxiety. Yes, our anxiety.  

Fear and anxiety are powerful motivators, and we need to feel them. They are potent tools that help us protect the things we care about most. Anxiety and stress harness focus and deliver energy to solve the problems at hand. They play dirty, keeping us uncomfortable, until we find solutions.  

When we turn away from our anxiety, when we separate ourselves from the problem, we dull our problem-solving skills. And we allow avoidance to give way to complacency and helplessness.

By contrast, when we believe we have sufficient resources to cope with a stressor, research shows we use its energy to face problems head-on, viewing the situation as a challenge. This is sometimes called a “challenge response” to stress and anxiety.

Few challenges face our schools more than the safety of our children. We are not powerless as citizens and parents, and we need not be resigned. We have options other than fear: there is action to be taken, there are problems to be solved. 

We can allow our anxiety to work for us, fueling our focus, and using its energy to take action.

We can use our anxiety to speak out, to get involved, to do what we can to be part of the solution.

We owe our kids our protection and our effort to meet — and resolve — the challenges before us. We owe it to our kids to stay anxious — and engaged.

After all, how else will we ever solve these problems?

For more help with managing stress and anxiety, check out psycholgoist and anxiety specialist Dr. Alicia Clark's anxiety blog, download her free ebook, Naming Your Feelings: A Guidebook To Understanding & Controlling Your Emotions, or sign up for her newsletter at AliciaClarkPsyD.com.