The deadly shootings in Las Vegas have left many of us feeling uneasy about being at large gatherings. Here, a psychologist explains why this anxiety is natural, plus how to dial back the panic.
If the thought of heading to a concert, club or festival makes you more nervous or uncomfortable than it used to, you’re not alone. Yesterday’s mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, along with recent mass murders at concerts in Manchester and Paris as well as at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, have many people on high alert when they find themselves in large crowds.
Feeling unsafe at a big gathering used to be more of an irrational fear, Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a psychologist in New York City, tells Health. But unfortunately, mass killings by lone gunman and terrorist groups means this worry is no longer irrational. “The anxiety we feel at events like these is usually on a primal level,” says Carmichael. “It’s survival anxiety, and it triggers your fight or flight response."
One way to combat crowd anxiety is to have a friend with you, someone who will act as an ally if you get nervous. “Make sure they know beforehand that you’re feeling a little anxious and that you might need them to reassure you that you’re safe,” Carmichael suggests. You want a friend there who you can confide in and talk to about what you're feeling, she says, because "if you’re feeling bodily sensations of anxiety, putting those feelings into words gives us more of a sense of control over them.”
Another calming tactic you can use when you start to feel overwhelmed in a crowd is a breathing technique that helps you steadily inhale and exhale, which keeps your body and mind centered. It can help you slow down and bring awareness and control to your body. “Maintaining your quality of breath is important," says Carmichael, who teaches her clients a specific three-part breathing technique here.
It’s also helpful to remember that while concerts and other gathering places may pose a risk, we take risks every day by flying, driving, and doing tons of routine activities. “Once we decide that we’re going to go ahead and take a risk like flying, it does no good to focus on it in the airplane,” she says. “You can take a rational and logical approach, and once you’ve decided to go to an event, put that fear on the shelf.”
If worries do start to pop up and intensify, Carmichael advises reminding yourself why you chose to be at the show. “You might tell yourself, you already thought this through and made the choice to be here, and the best thing you can do right now is focus on having fun or doing what you came here to do.”
If you find that crowd anxiety is keeping you from attending events you used to enjoy or other experiences, like commuting on mass transit or going to clubs and parties, it's a good idea to seek treatment from a professional, says Carmichael, who can help dial back your fears.
But don't forget, feeling anxiety after reading about and watching the news coverage of the Las Vegas shootings and other horrific events isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she says. “Sometimes it’s worth feeling anxiety and anger or other feelings that the world isn’t safe; that can serve a purpose and stimulate us to want to be proactive in some way, whether it’s volunteering for a cause, writing letters, whatever you feel is important,” Carmichael says.
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To channel that anxiety, Carmichael suggests following the CARE method. Consider how a world tragedy is making you feel as opposed to pushing those feelings away. Act by doing something that you think will ease those feelings, like developing a safety plan, prepping a go bag, or even just talking to a friend about it—something that will demonstrate to yourself that you're addressing your anxiety in an appropriate way. Then, reflect on how that action made you feel. Next, ease into something else, giving yourself permission to move on from the tragedy.
The CARE method is a positive way to deal with the natural, totally normal worries that crop up when deadly, random attacks like this occur. “Sometimes that anxiety needs a healthy outlet," says Carmichael, "so it’s ok for [tragedy] to spur you to take action.”