For ninety minutes on the night of October 1, the streets outside of Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas erupted into terror. Just a few days beforehand, a man had checked in with several suitcases. No one at the resort suspected that these contained at least 23 firearms and two tripods. This was not simply a guest who overpacked. This was the man who, within a few short days, would commit the deadliest mass shooting in the modern history of the United States. The Las Vegas shooting left nearly five dozen dead, and wounded over five hundred.
When news like this breaks, we rarely know quite how to feel. In the wake of such a tragedy, our hearts and minds race with competing thoughts and emotions. And as hard as it seems, people in addiction recovery must face these emotions head-on. Negative feelings become relapse triggers far too easily for us to ignore them.
We cannot tell you what to think or how to feel about the Las Vegas shooting. However, we can identify at least seven feelings that might cause you trouble as you try to cope with a reality in which such evil can occur.
In the wake of tragic news, many of us prefer to bury our heads in the sand. Why would we want to think of something so depressing? Instead, we choose to avoid conversations about it, ignore the news reports and generally pretend that it doesn’t affect us.
The sheer fact that we care so much about avoiding it should serve as proof that we have already been affected. Instead of trying to ignore those feelings, we should pay them tribute. As noted by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in On Death and Dying, denial marks the first stage of grief. We only move past this stage when we acknowledge how we feel. This isn’t quite the same as acceptance, as our feelings may still cause us to push against reality.
If you need to overcome your denial, try a little experiment. Think about the Las Vegas shooting. Mull over the facts you know about what happened. Now, let this sink in for a moment. Practice mindfulness, paying full attention to your thoughts. The moment you come across a word that describes an emotion, say it out loud.
You now know precisely which feelings you need to deal with. And having overcome your denial, you can move on to the real healing process.
Loss of life often results in depression, regardless of whether we know anyone who died. We feel for them and for their families. Even the knowledge that we live in a world where this sort of thing can happen may cause feelings of hopelessness. We may even feel that this tragedy justifies giving up on our recovery. After all, what’s the point in self-improvement if we’re only improving ourselves to live in a world where we can be gunned down at any second?
To cope with your depression, you must combat this thought process. Perhaps you’re right that the world is an unsafe place. But that doesn’t make your time here any less meaningful. If you want to reclaim the feeling that life is worth something, you must continue living it. Start by leaving the house, preferably with other people. Go to a meeting, play mini-golf, visit a museum—whatever activity you enjoy, find the time to go and do it.
The world contains room for many miseries, but they do not eradicate its many joys. Despite the tragedy of the Las Vegas shooting, many people continue to make happy memories every day. Go be a part of them. Better yet, make some of your own.
Alongside depression, many of us also suffer guilt. It’s not survivor guilt in the traditional sense, unless you happened to have been in the area when the Las Vegas tragedy occurred. Nevertheless, the shooting in Las Vegas will inevitably remind many addicts and alcoholics about the times they could have died, yet for some reason survived. And we may wonder what kind of Higher Power would keep us here after the harm we’ve done to others, yet take the lives of 59 people who committed no greater crime than walking down the wrong street at the wrong time.
First, take a moment to acknowledge how self-involved this type of thinking really is. By thinking this way, we accomplish little more than making the Vegas shooting all about ourselves. Feelings are not facts, and unless you suspect your addiction somehow caused the Vegas tragedy, you should be aware that nothing useful really comes of this self-loathing thought process.
Fortunately, the best way to get out of your own head actually doubles as a cure for guilt. Simply do something for somebody else. You might perform an act of service in your recovery community, for instance. Or if you need to do something more relevant to the case at hand, consider donating blood. Depending on where you live, it may not actually go to a victim of the shooting in Las Vegas. It might, however, save somebody in dire need. Every act of kindness you perform in the wake of the Vegas shooting will help you cope with it just that much more.
Senseless violence like that of the Vegas shooting never fails to stoke fear in the hearts of many. Any time we turn on the news or scroll through our Facebook page, we receive countless reminders of the random violence that occurred. It results in a feeling similar to that of the depressive hopelessness described above. In this case, however, we actively fear that we could become victims of similar tragedies at any time.
Communication expert George Gerbner referred to this as “mean world syndrome.” As we become inundated with violent images in the media, we begin to see the entire world as a violent place. The frequency of the images competes with our knowledge of reality. So despite how rarely we encounter violence in real life, we fear that it could lurk around the corner at any second.
The coping skill necessary to overcome this fear is two-fold. First, as we discussed in the depression entry, we must get out of the house and reclaim our faith in the world. Second, we must take a break from the news. This may sound as if it runs counter to what we said about denial, but not quite. Do not pretend that the Vegas shooting didn’t happen, or that you don’t harbor complex feelings about it. Simply give yourself a short break from those feelings before they overwhelm you. When the world begins to feel less intimidating, you can continue coping in a healthy way.
You’ll note that many of the feelings we’ve discussed thus far pertain to our overall worldview. And when our reaction to the Las Vegas shooting isn’t causing hopelessness, guilt or fear, we might just get furious. Maybe we feel angry at the shooter, or the hotel who didn’t cast more suspicion on his excess baggage. For reasons we can’t always explain, we may even want to blame the victims for not getting out sooner. Maybe we just feel angry in general, lashing out at anyone who even mentions the Vegas tragedy in passing. And if we catch ourselves getting stuck in these feelings, we might even feel a bit angry toward ourselves—just for feeling anger in the first place.
Want to know a secret? You don’t actually have to understand your anger to acknowledge it. In fact, your lack of understanding doesn’t even invalidate your feeling. Even when a feeling seems irrational, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s how you feel. But while we can’t always control our feelings, we can at least control our responses to them.
In this case, any of the coping mechanisms described above may help. Or, you might just want to try some grounding exercises. It sounds cheesy, but taking a deep breath and counting to ten really does help. Even better, try the 4-7-8 technique. Inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, and exhale hard for eight. Anger often results in hyper-arousal of the central nervous system. This technique will help you calm it. You might still feel some anger regarding the Vegas shooting, which is perfectly normal. But at least this way, you can take control of your anger—rather than the other way around.
It may not sound like frustration differs from anger all that much, but we’re referring to something specific. Whenever certain types of tragedy occur, like a shooting in Las Vegas, it isn’t long before people start politicizing. All through our social media feeds, we see people arguing about how to prevent tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting from occurring. And no matter what their stance on the issue, everyone believes the Vegas tragedy proves their beliefs to be correct.
No coping skills you can utilize will stop this from happening. Short of shutting down your social media accounts and becoming a hermit, you will encounter conversations like this. Even at 12-step meetings, which one expects to act as a politics-free zone, you’ll often hear these discussions before and after the meeting. You cannot prevent it. And lashing out at people will only make things worse. You can, however, try one thing—practice understanding.
Realize that the people causing you frustration are experiencing the same mix of emotions at you. While they may sometimes come across as self-righteous, they’re actually utilizing their own coping mechanisms. Fantasizing about a solution that could theoretically prevent violence is simply their way of trying to make sense of things. Their way of trying to picture a better world. You don’t need to participate in the conversation. The option of walking away is always there. But don’t walk away in frustration. Simply do so because you prefer not to engage in somebody else’s coping mechanism. And most importantly, do so with acceptance that everybody has their differences. Another person’s coping mechanism may not be right for you, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, just as you are entitled not to let it rent space in your head.
Even after utilizing the coping skills described above, some of us will continue to live in our heads for a bit. After overcoming our denial and acknowledging our other emotions, we will still feel stuck in a whirlwind of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. We may bounce back and forth from one emotion to the other. Some may even feel all of them going on at once, torn between which emotion is the “right” one to feel. It leaves us utterly confused. Not only do we feel confused by the chaotic world in which we live, but we feel as if that same chaos has pervaded our very minds.
That’s okay. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. If anything, it might actually mean you’ve come closer to the end of the coping process.
You can move past your confusion in the simplest way possible—by talking to someone about it. Bouncing your thoughts off of another person allows you to process them better. Sometimes, saying things out loud helps us organize our feelings. We may still feel many of the same negative emotions, but we’ll come to understand them a little better. It doesn’t even need to be a sponsor or therapist, although these options work great. Even talking to an understanding friend can help. And don’t forget, they likely have their own feelings about the Vegas shooting that they need to process. By opening up about your own troubles, you just might help somebody else.
A Note on Balance
Of all the coping skills we’ve discussed, talking to somebody is your best bet when at a loss. Remember, coping isn’t necessarily about disregarding our negative emotions altogether. Feelings will occur to us whether we like it or not. But at least by organizing them and utilizing healthy coping skills, we can achieve a sense of balance. Just remember to keep using these skills when you need them. This will help you to maintain that balance. Over time, you’ll find yourself returning to normalcy.
Unfortunately, the Vegas shooting will not be the last tragedy that intrudes upon our lives. The world can be a scary place. But by coping with our reality, carving out a space for ourselves and using our support system to keep us steady, we can learn to live in it peacefully. When things feel beyond our control, sometimes that’s the greatest comfort we can seek.