As restaurants, stores and other venues reopen, Americans are slowly but surely reentering the world. However, recent events, such as mass shootings in Boulder, Colorado and Atlanta, Georgia, added an extra layer of stress and uncertainty for many people. Keck Medicine of USC experts address how traumatic occurrences affect us even more in the age of COVID-19, and how people can cope with anxiety and fear.

The effect of shootings and other acts of violence on mental health

“The mass shootings in recent weeks have the potential to place our fears, despair and anger at the forefront of our minds. This often leads to a need to cope with the devastating news. Without a solution, we may enter a state of internal struggle as we grapple with the unknown and the loss of a desired sense of control. For many, this produces the same uneasy feeling that has been unfolding throughout the COVID-19 pandemic’s ups and downs and can impact peoples’ mental and physical health.”

Jonathan Wong, PsyD, clinical psychologist, Keck Medicine of USC

How added trauma may affect peoples’ willingness to reenter society, and how to reduce fears and anxiety

“People may feel hesitant to return to their normal activities because the world feels like a dangerous place. However, they may feel reassured to realizethat vaccines, masks and other COVID-19 countermeasures are safe and effective in reducing risk of infection.  As for acts of mass violence, it may help to accept there is an inherent risk in everything we do, but we should try to not let this stop us from living fully.

“Some people are more demoralized than depressed, meaning that they feel unable to cope.If you are demoralized by COVID-19 or recent disturbing events, think of one thing you would enjoy or that you would like to accomplish. Then do it. The immediate sense of joy and satisfaction you experience will help balance any negative feelings. Another technique is to literally try to leave anxiety ‘at the door.’ As you exit a room, building, or even a Zoom call, tell yourself, you will put any worries behind you. The physical act of leaving can serve as an end point for stressful ruminations and reset your mental energies. I also recommend that people see a therapist or seek medical care when they experience a prolonged period of depression.”

Steven Siegel, MD, PhD, psychiatrist, Keck Medicine of USC; chair of the Department of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences, Keck School of Medicine of USC

Symptoms of stress to look out for and lifestyle changes to combat them

“We see more patients presenting with stress-related symptoms stemming from fears of going outside and/or of COVID-19 infection and deep concern about recently reported traumatic events like shootings and acts of violence. Stress can manifest in the body as loss of sleep or frequent waking in the night, abdominal pain, diarrhea, heart racing, racing thoughts, dizziness, sweating or unexplained fear of certain situations. Fearful episodes can be triggered by daily, seemingly routine tasks, such as visiting the grocery store.

“Toxic stress can be just as damaging as other physical ailments so it is important to take time to practice self-care by turning off the phone and limiting exposure to social media/media that may bring traumatic images to mind. Also take time to eat well, exercise and get at least eight hours of sleep. In addition, there are a number of meditation apps that can help people recenter and find peace, even if used for only for 10 minutes per day.” 

Anjali Mahoney, MD, MPH, family medicine physician, Keck Medicine of USC