Coming to grips with emotional toll of mass shootings

DOYLESTOWN, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Emotions are running high for many people after this weekend's deadly mass shootings.

For previous victims of violence, such news can trigger feelings of anxiety and depression.

We spoke with a licensed professional counselor, Amy O'Neill of Doylestown, who is also a violence survivor herself.

She explained the emotional toll of recent tragedies and how to help people cope.

A total of 31 innocent people were shot and killed in the back-to-back mass shootings. Another group of families and friends are now left to grieve.

O'Neill says news of this unthinkable violence also tends to re-traumatize survivors of past tragedies.

"Where they feel afraid to go outside, they feel anxious, they get depressed, curl up in a ball and feel hopeless and don't want to talk to anybody," she says.

She knows this not just as a professional, but also as a survivor.

She was a triathlete running her first Boston Marathon in 2013, when terrorists struck.

"There was the first explosion at the finish line and instantly I knew something was wrong," she recalls.

The second explosion would send shrapnel deep into her leg.

Emotionally, she found comfort talking with other survivors and now focuses her counseling on that.

Related story: Medical groups say hate and easy access to high-powered guns, not mental illness, are to blame for mass violence.

She says sadness set in over the weekend, thinking those affected by the El Paso and Dayton shootings are just at the start of a long and difficult journey to heal.

"There is this reality that you know something bad can happen to you, that kind of sticks with you," she said of feeling vulnerable all over again.

O'Neill tells anyone feeling overwhelmed by the recent tragedies to: limit news exposure, surround yourself with friends, and go back to their therapist.

She says the first step for survivors in Texas and Ohio is to start with acknowledging what has happened.

"If the safety of your world has been shattered, however that came to you, that needs to be acknowledged," she notes.

O'Neill is also part of National Mass Violence and Victimization Resource Center.

It has resources to help survivors, to help others, or to prepare your community.
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