What to Do When the Anniversary of Your School Shooting is Coming Up
Facing the anniversary with strength
It’s okay to feel a multitude of ways as you come up on such a significant date in your life. Let’s deconstruct these feelings and how we can manage them
Before that day - the day everything changed - you were a different person. You were innocent. Maybe you took things for granted. Not in a bad way, but in the way someone who hasn’t experienced a traumatic life event would.
Now, almost a year later, when you open Snapchat your stomach turns at the sight of the little red dot indicating you have a memory notification. Before that day, the snaps are silly and carefree. You can’t help but contrast those with the ones you know are coming - the ones after your life changed forever - the day of your school shooting.
These yearly markers are difficult for anyone who has experienced a significant trauma such as a school shooting, a suicide attempt or an assault. With an anniversary date looming, you may experience many different reactions, such as needing to distract yourself or needing to reach out and talk about what happened. The good news is that these reactions are 100% normal and are your body’s way of keeping you safe.
Sometimes it helps to know that other people are experiencing the same things you are. The US Department of Veterans Affairs identified in this article four common reactions to anniversary dates among the veterans they serve. Veterans can be a useful comparison to school shooting survivors as both have witnessed mass violence, lost loved ones and experience high levels of depression and anxiety which sometimes culminates in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Here are four common reactions to anniversary dates:
Reliving the Shooting
One of the most common reactions around anniversary dates is reliving some of the same feelings, thoughts and responses that occurred at the time or after the shooting. These feelings, thoughts and responses can feel just as strong as they were when you first experienced them. Panic attacks are not uncommon along with intrusive memories.
If you’re experiencing this, one coping mechanism that may work for you is doing a mindfulness exercise like the 54321 Technique. This exercise helps to take you out of the past and focus on the present where you are safe.
To do this you will notice:
5 things that you can see. You can say it out loud or in your head. “I see a dog walking by. I see the wind blowing through the trees. I see a car parallel parking. I see someone twirling their hair. I see the light reflected on the table.”
4 things that you can feel. Focus on things that you can physically feel in your body - focusing on emotions can be counterproductive. “I feel my feet firmly planted on the ground. I feel the warmth of my cup of coffee. I feel the wind blowing through my hair. I feel the warmth of sun on my back.”
3 things you can hear. “I hear my friends talking next to me. I hear a bird calling up above. I hear a car driving down the block.”
2 things that you smell. “I smell cookies baking nearby. I smell the laundry detergent of my shirt.”
1 thing you can taste. “I taste my coffee.”
One of the benefits of this exercise is it jolts your brain back into the present by taking the focus off of the past and your emotions. Instead, you focus on what your senses are experiencing in the moment.
You may notice yourself avoiding people, places and events that remind you of the shooting. Sometimes our reactions to these can be so strong that we feel it is best to avoid those triggers altogether. This can show up in avoiding the place where the shooting occurred or talking with others who also survived the shooting. Sometimes one avoids things that aren’t directly related to our experience, but remind us of it such as news coverage of other school shootings or sounds similar to gunfire like fireworks.
Sometimes this avoidance is accompanied by guilt for feeling like you are trying to forget what happened and the people you lost. It may in fact be just about impossible to forget what happened or the people you love. The jury is still out on whether the previous statement is comforting or not. Regardless, know that avoidance is simply your body’s way of protecting you from harm.
If you find a distraction to be helpful for you - try planning activities on and around anniversary dates that keep you both busy and fulfilled such as hanging out with a friend, exercising or trying a new activity. And while distraction can be a helpful tool, if you reach a point where avoidance is not helpful - i.e. avoiding loved ones who support you - consider reaching out to a mental health professional who can help you navigate this tricky territory.
Sadness has a way of sneaking up on you making it tricky to notice those subtle changes in moods. Many people experience an increase in sadness around anniversary dates so if you notice yourself feeling sad or lacking energy, there isn’t anything wrong with you - you might be subconsciously realizing the emotional impact of an anniversary date. Social media and anniversary reminders have a way of drawing comparisons between your life before the shooting and your life after. While reflection and sadness are normal, if these feelings last longer or hit deeper than you are comfortable experiencing, it may be a good idea to talk to a mental health provider who can help you navigate these emotions.
If you’ve noticed yourself feeling more anxious and on edge around an anniversary date, you may be experiencing hyperarousal. Hyperarousal occurs when the memory of trauma is so strong that the body starts to react as if the danger is nearby again. This cues an excess of adrenaline to be released so your body is ready for fight, flight or freeze regardless of it logically needs to be. Hyperarousal shows itself in excess anxiety, stress, trouble sleeping, irritability and panic attacks. You may feel as if you are constantly on guard. We recommend practicing a grounding or meditation technique every day so that when you start to feel the signs of hyperarousal you can have it in your back pocket. Check out our articles on Relaxation, Mindfulness, and Developing Coping Strategies to help you manage these feelings.
“Practice belly breathing –put one hand on your stomach and start to inhale slowly. As you breathe in, imagine a balloon in your stomach filling up and continue to inhale until the balloon is very full. Put your other hand on your heart, feel your heartbeat, and hold your breath for 5 seconds. Now let your breath out slowly for 10 seconds – feel your belly flatten like a deflating balloon. Repeat this process 4 or 5 times and you should notice your heart beat slow down and your muscles relax.”
Develop strong coping methods
As difficult as anniversary dates and the times surrounding them can be, there are ways to make the experience easier to bear. We encourage you to try out different coping techniques. If one doesn’t work, say thank you, next. If you are finding the symptoms to be overwhelming, we encourage you to reach out to a mental health provider. Just know that with the right support, these dates, though difficult, will get better.
One of our favorite ways to find new coping strategies is to talk to our friends and peers who have been through similar experiences and find out what works for them. It’s a coping strategy swap of sorts. We’ve shared ours, now what are missing? What do you do to take care of yourself around trauma anniversaries? Let us know in the comments! Together, we are stronger.