Innocence Stolen, Fear on the Rise: Mass Shooting Anxiety Marks a generation

Words by Mallory Pace

Not even a full month into the year and there have been three school shootings across the country. The Gun Violence Archive has documented 32 mass shootings up until January 28th, with more coming in every day. With that math we’re on track for at least one shooting a day. Twenty-seven days into the year and at least 54 victims have been killed from gun violence, even more injured. Three killed outside an apartment complex in North Carolina; six bodies found near a highway in California; a block party in Katy, Texas left three dead; in one night five people were killed in two separate shootings in Maryland; multiple students and administration injured, two left dead, in a shooting at a high school in Perry, Iowa.

Just to name a few. 

February also marks the anniversary of the devastating shooting where 17 lives were taken at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School six years ago. In those six years, the number of school shootings has only gotten worse. Mass shootings take more and more from our society, children included, and now it’s hardly even safe to celebrate your team winning the Super Bowl. On the same anniversary date as the Parkland shooting, 21 people – including at least eight children, according to the Associated Press, were wounded at a public parade in Kansas City celebrating the Chief’s Super Bowl win on Sunday. So far, one victim has been pronounced dead, the Associated Press article reported  – a mother of two children. Three suspects were detained but that won’t make up for the undoubtedly amount of fear and worry this event has caused for Americans. We can’t go to school, we can’t celebrate one of the biggest events of the year. Is anywhere safe? 

This age of mass shootings has caused the most unsuspecting of places to be some of the most dangerous. It’s no wonder a quarter of Americans have changed their lives due to this fear. A 2019 survey by the American Psychology Association found that 79% of Americans reported feeling stress over the possibility of a mass shooting occuring and 33% said they have refrained from going to certain places due to this fear. 

What makes mass shooting anxiety particularly frightening is that these events are occurring in places we would never associate with violence, explained Sherman Lee, associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. It’s a powerful part of our experience that causes people to stress and live a limited life, he said. Lee has taught a class on death and dying for almost seven years, and he pondered on how the section on mass shootings, what used to be one category, now has its own subcategories, even broken up between elementary and high school shootings. That’s how increasingly prevalent and tangible these events have become, even in the last few years. 

You don’t have to have come close to a mass shooting to have this kind of anxiety: The influx of media about shootings is all around us. Lee suggested we’re bombarded with such information in an imbalanced way because people usually gravitate toward scary things, so we get fed a large, unhealthy dose of scary news. It’s such an unfortunate part of our society that we just can’t seem to get away from, and obviously, it affects people in catastrophic ways, whether it’s being a victim or the mere fear of it taking over one’s ability to live.

Lee has conducted extensive research into the intersection of anxiety and issues like mass shootings and COVID-19. Similar to the work he did with pandemic anxiety and grief, Lee conducted a study with the objective to create a five-item scale used to decipher how much an individual struggles with mass shooting anxiety and whether they should consider professional help.

“I wanted to create a kind of, we call them screeners, to identify some symptoms of that fear that a counselor can use or even anyone,” Lee said. “We all want to know ‘Is my anxiety normal and where’s the line?’”  

Surveying 759 adults, Lee identified the five most representative signs of people truly suffering with mass shooting anxiety. The first is a physiological expression — appetite change. If the thought of a mass shooting either immediately decreases or increases one’s appetite, it’s a sign of elevated fear and that the body is responding in a fight or flight mode, Lee explained. The second, also related to a fight or flight bodily response, is experiencing physical symptoms like sweating and an increased heart rate at just the thought of such an event. The third is a cognitive symptom — having dreams about mass shootings. Lee explained if someone’s preoccupation is so heightened with the idea of a mass shooting that it’s being carried into their sleep world regularly, that’s a useful distinction between a casual and serious concern. Another cognitive symptom is if someone often mistakenly hears gunshots in loud noises, it shows they’re especially preoccupied with that fear.

“Because what happens if you’re really afraid of something, you’re what we call hyper- vigilant,” Lee said. “Your senses are scanning the environment to the eyes and the ears, but in this very distorted way, but it’s really just looking for that danger.” 

The last symptom is a behavioral expression — if someone finds they’re just staying at home and avoiding certain activities or places out of fear, that might be a sign to consider professional help. Lee said anxiety feeds itself by avoiding the thing it’s afraid of. Yes, you’re technically safe by staying at home, but you’re still going to be anxious and afraid because it just feeds itself as your world gets smaller. You can’t live a fulfilled life in fear and anxiety being stuck at home, he said.

There is a slim silver lining, however, to experiencing this kind and extent of anxiety where you’re unable to leave the house. Therapy and treatment can be done from home and many studies point to internet-based therapies being just as effective as in-person. Published in the Nature Mental Health journal, a recent U.K. study of over 27,500 patients found that online therapy has a “dominant incremental cost-effectiveness ratio relative to standard care, offering similar clinical effectiveness but with shorter treatment times,” the report said. If someone wants to be treated for their anxiety, there are a lot of ways to make it happen.

Movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, public parks, concerts, churches, restaurants — all places we go unassuming something terrible is going to happen, yet they’ve all been the site of mass gun violence. The country’s history of mass shootings has become a twisted part of society, a very real fear now engraved in our brains and in some cases, the fear determines or debilitates someone’s ability to live their life. Nowhere is safe anymore, and that’s hardly an exaggeration. Since 2020, each year has ended with over 600 confirmed mass shootings, (Gun Violence Archive, 2023). 

Being on edge or constantly planning escape routes in every place we go has become a routine and even an encouraged habit to practice. Don’t let your guard down, face the front entrance when you can, be aware of all exits, keep your eye on shady movements, see something, say something. Mass shooting anxiety is something that will negatively mark this generation, Lee explained, similar to how the pandemic, 9/11 and the Iraq War has left its mark on current and previous generations and their anxiety. Generations before, students were doing drills out of the possibility of an atomic bomb. Point being, anxiety isn’t a new concept but the reality of mass shooting anxiety is unique to this age of mental health.

“I think those are the two unfortunate tragedies [COVID-19 pandemic and mass shootings] that are going to mark a generation, and they too will have to deal with those issues as people dealt with 9/11 and Iraq,” Lee said. “I definitely think that’s going to be one of the cultural touchstones.”

Again, our era of the Internet, social media and quick connections hold the potential to provide real clinical help to those struggling. Generations before us didn’t have the same luxury, even in the cultural sense of mental health and stigma behind it. The resources at our fingertips are abundant when compared to generations before us. Even still, mass shooting anxiety is a very real fear and something that has become a constant worry in most Americans’ lives. No matter the level or extent of how this issue impacts an individual, this is a fear that won’t be going away any time soon. Although you can’t let the fear of such an event prevent you from living your life, it can be hard not to when we’re never really certain of our safety. 

About Mallory Pace

Friends and family knew Mallory Pace would become a writer when she wrote and illustrated a hand-made children’s book in the third grade for her class to read. It didn’t indicate a prodigy-in-the-making, but all the elements of a good storyline were there, waiting to be improved. Now, Mallory is about to graduate from the University of North Florida with a multimedia journalism degree and minors in political science and marketing, with which she hopes to continue storytelling and exploring avenues of multimedia journalism. In Mallory's free time, you’ll either find her taking her cat, Peter, on a walk via stroller, or galavanting around the beaches.