‘We have to keep living our lives’: Managing fear in wake of mass shootings

MADISON, Wis. – Health experts are offering advice to the many people in Madison dealing with the fear of what could’ve been after learning the suspected Highland Park Shooter was in the capital city and seriously considering a second attack.

Robert Crimo III reportedly drove more than 140 miles to southern Wisconsin after killing seven people and injuring more than 30 others at a Fourth of July parade in Illinois. On Wednesday, officials from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said 21-year-old Crimo considered opening fire at a Madison holiday event.

RELATED: Highland Park mass shooting suspect ‘seriously contemplated’ second attack in Madison, officials say

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said was grateful Crimo ultimately decided against it but that it is important to acknowledge the terror he inflicted.

“Frankly, right now, we know that something like this could happen in any community in the United States of America,” said Rhodes-Conway. “So yes, people should be aware; they should be afraid that a mass shooting can happen in our community.”

UW-Madison Counseling Psychology Associate Professor Travis Wright said a healthy level of fear is appropriate and that right now it’s normal to feel anxious and uncertain but it’s important that those responses remain measured.

“We tend to not make very good decisions when we make decisions from a place of fear,” Wright said. “They may be sort of catastrophizing and assuming the worst.”

He said some degree of vigilance can be a good thing when using fear to motivate some action. For example, Wright said it’s completely rational for people to temporarily avoid large gatherings but that they can also do things like create a safety plan to take back some control.

“Talk with the people that you’re with and decide where you’re going to meet if you have to separate and know where the exits are,” he explained. “All of those things you can do to just help yourself feel more certain about how you’re going to respond can help you feel safer.”

He also recommended talking through your feelings because avoiding them altogether tends to make people feel more panicked and afraid.

He did, however, warn against hypervigilance — where you can’t stop thinking about the issue. That can lead people to procrastinate, have a hard time focusing or even feel edgier.

To help strike a balance, Wright recommends keeping things in perspective and finding ways to bring joy into your life that make you feel safe.

“Most people get out of bed every day and bad things don’t happen to them,” he said. “Every day, we have to live with a certain amount of uncertainty, and so we have to keep living our lives.” 

He added keeping things in perspective also means recognizing when there’s an issue and a healthy way to cope could be to get involved in violence prevention advocacy work.