The following article contains descriptions of panic , grief , and other intense feelings. If you are worried about your reaction to the following content but would like to continue reading, we encourage you first to identify something you can do if you feel distressed such as reaching out to a friend, doing a grounding activity, etc.
Breaking the Stigma
If you’ve survived something as traumatic as a school shooting, you know a thing or two about the challenging emotions that can present in the aftermath. Sometimes sharing these feelings can be more difficult than experiencing them. This can be attributed to stigma. What’s inconvenient about stigma is that you and the person next to you can have the exact same feelings, but they may not feel comfortable telling you because they are afraid you’ll look down on them.
Here at Youth Empowerment by Youth Era, we believe in breaking the stigma by talking about those difficult emotions. We believe that empowerment and healing starts with the conversations society shies away from. We want to disrupt the narrative. Talking about feelings is healthy; it’s like cardio for your mental health. It gets your heart pumping, and afterward, you feel good and glad you did it.
We’re going to share the stories of students that have survived school shootings, and we hope you’ll see that the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing aren’t so unusual after all. Without further adieu, here are six thoughts and feelings you might experience after surviving a school shooting.
6 normal thoughts & feelings
you might be experiencing after a school shooting
Reluctance to Talk About It
Danielle Vabner, sister of Noah Pozner, who died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School recalls:
There is a whole host of reasons that may make you feel uncomfortable talking about what you’ve been through and how you’re feeling.
These could include:
- Fearing you’ll be a burden to others
- Thinking people will feel bad for you
- Not wanting to make others upset or sad
- You are tired of being asked intrusive questions
- You simply aren’t ready to share
- You’re afraid you’ll be looked down on for what you think or the way you feel
It is entirely valid to feel these things, AND sharing your feelings with Youth Era’s Virtual Support Services will never be seen as a burden; we won’t look down on your for the thoughts you have, and we’ll never pressure you to share before you’re ready. Of course, we encourage you to find people who you feel safe talking to, but you are never obligated to talk to anyone about what happened and how you’re doing.
TL;DR: You get to decide when and where you share your story and feelings.
Needing To Leave
Reminders of the shooting can seem to crop up everywhere, making the space around us feel unsafe.
These triggers could be:
- The classroom you sheltered in
- A restaurant you were leaving when you got those frantic texts
- The memorials and vigils covering the town
- Seeing news posts about it
- Having your social media feed flooded with RIP reminders
Being in these places and seeing these images can jolt your brain back to the traumatic event and bring up overwhelming feelings of distress and panic. It’s natural to avoid these triggers; if leaving the area where the incident occurred makes you feel safe, honor that instinct, and listen to your inner voice.
TL;DR: Sometimes, we do better when we are given space and time away. Listen to your needs and don’t put as much weight on where others think you “should” be.
Needing To Stay
Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in Blacksburg, Virginia:
Staying in the community where you experienced the shooting can be triggering at times, but it can also provide a source of comfort. The people around you have a better understanding of what you’re going through. You don’t have to explain what happened to you or why certain sounds, sights, days, or places are triggering because they get it.
In another town, your reactions to a door slamming, fireworks, or other loud noises might seem unusual, but in your community, you don’t have to explain yourself. When a person from your community notices that you’re in distress, they won’t give you a bewildered look, in fact, they may put their arm around you to offer some comfort.
TL;DR: Staying in a community that understands what you’re going through can be powerfully healing.
Lynn Davis, a survivor of the Lindhurst High School shooting in Olivehurst, California shares:
Just because the traumatic event has passed, doesn’t mean your body will believe that to be true. Feelings of panic can surface suddenly, or be triggered, by:
- Anything else associated with the trauma
Regardless of the reason, when experiencing intense feelings of panic or a “panic attack,” your body believes that it is in danger and will sound the alarms and initiate your flight or fight response.
While panic attacks and symptoms vary by person, common symptoms include:
- Increased heart rate
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling like you’re choking
- Feeling faint
- Hot or cold flashes
Attacks typically last from a few minutes to up to half an hour. Luckily, there are lots of coping techniques out there to help manage panic attacks. If you’d like help to prevent or cope with panic attacks, check out our article here. We also have articles on PTSD and Anxiety Disorders that help break this information down in an easy-to-digest way.
TL;DR: As scary and uncontrollable as panic attacks can seem in the moment, with the right support and resources, you can learn how to manage and decrease your panic attacks.
Alec Calhoun, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in Blacksburg, Virginia:
Survivors may feel guilt and wish that they had acted differently when, in reality, our responses to trauma are not choices. When we are in life-threatening situations, our bodies hijack us and move toward survival. Whether you fight, flight, or freeze, your body knows what it needs to do to survive. Survivors may also feel guilty that they survived when others did not. “Why did I survive and my friend get hurt?” is a question many ask.
One study found that 90% of people who survived a traumatic event when others did not, experienced guilt. We know that Alec Calhoun is not to blame for his friend’s injuries; we know who the culprit is and who deserves to feel guilty. If you are experiencing survivor’s guilt, try talking to a friend. If they went through the same event, chances are they are experiencing the same thing. If they haven’t, they might be able to provide you with an outside perspective and reassure you that you aren’t to blame.
If you continue to grapple with survivor’s guilt, reach out to a therapist who can help you work through these feelings.
TL;DR: Your body did exactly what it needed to keep you safe. You are here and safe, and the world is glad to have you.
Wanting To Make A Difference
Danielle Vabner, whose brother Noah Pozner, died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting shares:
After surviving a school shooting, you may feel the need or responsibility to channel your energy into prevention or advocacy efforts. If you are thinking about becoming involved in activist efforts, and it feels right to you, we encourage you to get involved. The act of moving towards a larger goal with a group of like-minded individuals can be healing for survivors.
Here are a couple of places to get you started:
- If you’d like to mobilize voters and advocate for better gun laws, consider joining March for Our Lives or Everytown for Gun Safety.
- If you want to ensure that other survivors get the support they need, consider joining Youth ERA’s Taskforce to produce research and resources for survivors of mass shootings. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest and get more information.
TL;DR: Sometimes, the paths to change and healing can coincide. Just be sure to take care of yourself along the way.
Sometimes just knowing that others experience the same challenging thoughts and emotions that you do can be a relief in itself. We hope this list shows you that you’re not the only one experiencing these feelings. If you’d like to help others experience that same relief, try reaching out to a loved one who has also been affected by a school shooting. You may discover that there aren’t just six thoughts and feelings that typically follow a school shooting; there are infinitely more.
“6 Normal Thoughts & Feelings After Surviving a School Shooting” was written by Youth Era staff member, Gina Gervase.
About Youth Era
Youth Era is a nonprofit that works with teens and young adults to become happy, successful, and contributing adults members of their communities. The organization creates solutions for communities across the country that look beyond short-term assistance for the few and toward sustainable support for the many. To learn more, visit www.youthera.org.