How to Handle Anxiety Around Mass Shootings and Going Back to School

By Leslie Goldman

Going to high school brings up a lot of feelings: excitement over connecting with friends, joining clubs, and playing sports, and nerves or stress around things like academics, making friends, and fitting in. Transitions can be difficult simply because they bring change. But in recent years, students have had a new worry added to the back-to-school season: anxiety around school shootings. 

That’s something Ella Davanzo, a high school junior in suburban Chicago, has been managing. She’d been feeling anxious whenever she walked into her school. Then, when she heard about the Fourth of July parade shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, just 20 minutes from her home, she began mapping out escape routes in public places. 

Davanzo isn’t alone. Mental health experts say it’s common for today’s teens to take a moment when entering classrooms or public places to spot the exit signs or carry their phones in their pockets in case they need to call 911.

 Of course, students feel all kinds of ways about the topic. For Davanzo, it’s anxiety that causes stress. Others have come to “think that this is just part of going to school now,” says Katie Hurley, a psychotherapist who works with teens in El Segundo, California, and coastal Connecticut.

Sometimes it’s possible to experience anxiety without realizing; it could show up as a stomach ache or nausea, for instance. Or you may feel numb about it all, which can be your brain’s way of protecting you from worry. 

Learn more about the symptoms of anxiety

Whatever your response to school shootings is, it’s OK. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something to manage your feelings.

You can. Here’s how:

Ground Yourself

Grounding exercises are things you can do when stress and anxiety begin to feel overwhelming. They work by grounding you and bringing your mind back to the present moment, which helps because it’s hard to worry about the future when you’re focusing on the present. 

  • Stash a squeezy stress ball in your backpack. Squeeze it when you begin to feel anxious.
  • Try “square breathing.” Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and wait another four counts before the next inhale. You can even use a finger to trace a square in your hand as you practice.
  • Name two things you can see, two things you can hear, two things you can smell, and two things you can feel. Example: “I see sunshine and a tree; I hear traffic and the breeze; I smell the lotion on my hands and freshly cut grass; I feel the fabric of my jeans and my necklace rubbing between my fingers.”
  • Try easy, short guided meditations. There are lots of apps that offer them, including: Calm, Headspace, or Buddhify.

Learn more easy breathing exercises you can do anywhere. 

Stay Away from Stressful Content

There’s a difference between being informed and being bombarded with bad news. If online content or the news is amping up your anxiety, take a break from it. Choose apps that make you feel connected to others and take your mind off your worries. And, of course, it’s always good to take a break from screens altogether and connect with friends and family in person—a proven way to improve your mental health. 

Learn more ways to manage social media for your mental health

Get Involved

Sometimes anxiety can come from feeling powerless in a situation. That’s why taking action helps some people manage it. For example, you can write letters to your local congressional representative in support of legislation that may reduce mass shootings, support your school’s efforts to keep students safe, or join other organizations that speak to you.

Talk to Someone

If your best friend was struggling with anxiety, you’d encourage them to talk to someone, right? The same applies to you. Reach out to a trusted teacher, coach, or school counselor. Parents and caregivers can help here too. 

If talking face to face with your folks feels uncomfortable or you’re unsure how to start the conversation, Hurley suggests texting or emailing them. “Just write, ‘I need help. I’m feeling anxious,’” she says.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when it’s time to reach out for support. One big clue is if your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors:

  • Feel too intense
  • Last longer than two weeks
  • Get worse or don’t get better
  • Make it hard for you to go about your normal activities
  • Feel unbearable
  • Make you feel unsafe

If you’re feeling any of those things, it’s time to reach out to a trusted adult and ask them to connect you to a mental health professional, like a counselor at your school, who can help you feel better. It can be helpful to ask a trusted adult to help you find someone.

Here are some places to look:

  • Social workers or counselors who support students at your school
  • Your pediatrician, who can refer you to people they recommend
  • Your insurance company, which will have a list of in-network providers
  • Community organizations that provide low- or no-cost therapy
  • Therapists your friends or family recommend
  • Telehealth mental health care providers

It can be helpful to work with a therapist who shares your cultural background or has been trained in culturally competent care. Here is JED’s guide to finding one.

If you need to talk to someone right away:

  • The Teen Line at 800-252-8336 will connect you to a trained peer counselor between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. PST.
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained mental health counselor at any time of day. 

If you—or someone you know—is experiencing a mental health crisis, including a suicide or substance use crisis, call or text 988

Look Out for the Good

For Davanzo, having various escape routes planned out in her head has helped calm her anxiety. She’s also begun scoping out whatever room she’s in for happy signs, like someone holding a door open for a stranger at the store or a family laughing together while waiting for their meal in a restaurant. Doing this, she says, helps balance her worrying by “helping me realize the good in the people who surround me.”

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Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.