As of August 15, there have been 261 mass shootings this year and so with a growing fear of public spaces, it seems there’s a growing sense of anxiety triggered by these traumatic events. The unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of mass shootings only stokes people’s fears, even those not directly affected by a particular mass shooting.
Trying to comprehend these tragedies and make sense of the nonsensical can feel like a pointless task but it’s still somehow unavoidable. With the rising awareness of the value of self-care, we talked with some experts to weigh in on the importance of taking a mental health day.
Latinx Therapy founder and therapist Adriana Alejandre, psychologist Lydiana Garcia, and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Anabel Basulto from Kaiser Permanente all spoke with HipLatina about the benefits of taking a mental health day in the wake of a traumatic event like a mass shooting.
In a piece on CBS, Dr. Megan Ranney and Dr. Rinad Beidas wrote about the rising awareness and fear of mass shootings.
“A friend’s teenager told us that he ‘always looks for the closest exit when he enters a crowded building. The child of a physician says that he regularly thinks about whether he would be brave enough to run at an assailant in order to save his friends. A teacher told us that she worries about which kids are too slow or too loud and whether these traits — normal in young children — would get them all killed. Another child struggles with severe anxiety years after a mass shooting at her school.”
With the 24-hour news providing a steady reel of updates it can lead some to feel almost selfish to take a break from it but it becomes a necessity at some point.
“Turn off social media, the news, radio and know that public places may have these media sources on for the public, so if you know this will trigger you, it may be best to stay away from these places while you heal,” Alejandre suggests.
A 2017 survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of Americans report feeling stress, anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result of news consumption. However, 20 percent say they’re “constantly” checking their social media feeds which means increased exposure to the latest news.
This “need to know” mentality coupled with the habit many people have of mindlessly scrolling through their social feeds can only worsen mental health for some people if there has been a triggering event like a mass shooting.
“When the shootings are based on hate, they can also trigger and add to cumulative trauma that the person already has. For example, experiencing racism, prejudice, sexism, misogyny, and bigotry,” Garcia explains. “Therefore, when we hear such news, most of us will be triggered in a way or another.”
Furthermore, Alejandre encourages people to not engage in the inevitable political discussions that follow a mass shooting.
“Don’t waste energy on people on the internet with different political views,” she said. Whether you’ve been directly affected by a mass shooting or feel triggered by such hate crimes, taking a mental health day from school or work is not a luxury but rather a necessity.
The Looming Effects of Trauma
Some may argue that unless you’ve been personally affected by an event like a mass shooting, a mental health day may not be necessary but that’s not the case, according to Garcia.
“For people who have experienced similar trauma, hearing this news can trigger responses similar to the ones they had when they experienced their own trauma,” she explains.
According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, there is an on-going danger that lives on in the schools where shootings have occurred. The overall climate and sense of community is altered and damaged for a long time to come.
The process of grieving is essential to healing and part of that includes crying, which is a completely normal way to process grief, according to Alejandre.
“After receiving tragic news, our bodies experience physiological symptoms that we do not feel in the moment, including dissociation, a mental defense mechanism that disconnects us from thoughts, surroundings and our current location in order to protect us. Once these symptoms fade away, the pain exacerbates and our bodies often feel extremely fatigued and may experience headaches, without proper rest,” she said.
From the pangs of survivor’s guilt to the feeling that going back to your regular routine is good, Alejandre advises that the only thing that helps in either situation is taking time for yourself.
“The longer that we prolong our feelings of grief, the longer they stay with us.”
The Benefits of a Mental Health Day
The concept of a mental health day, especially in school, may seem relatively new but societal acceptance of a mental health break are becoming more accepted, and it’s evident they are necessary.
Americans who received paid vacation or time off only used 54 percent and nearly 66 percent are working during their vacations, according to a 2018 Glassdoor study. Women were less likely to take their paid time off than men were, according to the study. Mental health days are slowly being integrated into the workforce and in June of this year, Oregon passed a law allowing students to take mental health days, the same as they would a sick day.
The day to day stress the average person deals with coupled with a traumatic experience can be overwhelming. Basulto lists multiple health benefits for taking a day for yourself including a decrease in impulsive behavior, anxiety, and minimized depression.
“Employers benefit from increased motivation and productivity when employees are more rested. Equally, our personal relationships also benefit from having access to the best part of us and not only the stressed part. Having a mental health day makes us better students, employees, spouses, parents, and friends,” she said.
The benefits are literally scientific, not just emotional/mental, according to Basulto, who explains that higher cortisol levels (a stress hormone) can cause insomnia, overeating, and increased irritability.
“Having joy in your life allows for a more balanced life,” she added.
Mindful Activities Are Better Than Distracting Activities
Garcia suggests clients start off by writing a list of activities they enjoy from the simple to the more time-consuming to help them figure out what they can do that day.
“Distracting activities tend to reduce ‘negative’ emotions, thoughts and sensations by momentarily putting your attention on something else, for example: playing a game, watching TV. Relaxing activities help us feel more at ease, for example, massages, foot scrubs, naps, and mindful activities can help us decrease the ‘negative’ emotions, thoughts and sensations by focusing inwards,” she explained.
Whatever the activity may be the intention is relaxation so it can be something like mindful meditation or walking or social interactions. If friends or family aren’t accessible, Garcia suggests joining a community organization or support group, there are also many online communities available via Facebook or meetup.com where you can find groups according to your interests.
“If taking a full day is available to you, choose several of the activities, just don’t over plan it or make it another to-do day,” she advises.
All three experts agree that “you can’t pour from an empty cup” and emphasize that taking a mental health break is far from a selfish act.
“What is important is that you become aware of your needs and that by taking care of yourself, you’re also increasing your ability to be there for others,” Garcia said.