‘We are Boulder:’ How to deal with tragedy and trauma related to mass shootings

March 24, 2021
Coloradans are reeling after the Boulder mass shooting at a grocery store. This photo shows Boulder's iconic red Flatirons with snow and blue sky. Photo: Getty Images.
Coloradans are reeling after the mass shooting at a Boulder, Colorado grocery store on March 22. Boulder is known for its iconic rock formations, known as the Flatirons. Photo: Getty Images.

Coloradans know all too well what it’s like to deal with tragedy and trauma related to mass shootings.

Now Boulder, Colorado has joined the ranks of communities reeling from mass violence after a senseless mass shooting at a King Soopers on March 22, where a gunman killed a police officer, three grocery store workers and six others.

Back in 1999, the devastating killings of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton forever shattered the serenity of schools.

Together we mourned as if we could absorb some of the grief from families who had lost loved ones. “We are Columbine,” Coloradans declared.

Then, in 2012, Coloradans suffered again after the Aurora Theater Shooting left 12 dead and 70 others injured.

Among those killed in the Boulder Mass Shooting was Kevin Mahoney. His daughter shared a photo of him walking her down the aisle.
Among those killed on Monday in the Boulder mass shooting was Kevin Mahoney. His daughter, Erika Mahoney, shared a photo on Twitter of her dad walking her down the aisle.

There have been too many other mass shootings in Colorado, among them: New Life Church in Colorado Springs in 2007, a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs in 2015 and the STEM School in Highlands Ranch in 2019.

Across the U.S., countless communities from Las Vegas to Newtown, Connecticut have endured the horrors of mass shootings, and just last week, near Atlanta, the spa shootings left several Asian women dead.

Now Coloradans are mourning again.

Lost on Monday were Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley, a 51-year-old father of seven who rushed into the grocery store to help people; King Soopers employees, Rikki Olds, 25, Teri Leiker, 51 and Denny Stong, 20; and Neven Stanisic, 23; Rikki Olds, 25; Tralona Bartkowiak, 49; Suzanne Fountain, 59; Teri Leiker, 51; Kevin Mahoney, 61; Lynn Murray, 62; and Jody Waters, 65.

“We are Boulder.”

How can I get help with behavioral health care?

If you are already a patient at a UCHealth primary care clinic that also has a behavioral health expert, you can seek a referral from your primary care provider.

What is integrated behavioral health care?

Integrated behavioral health care means that experts in mental, emotional and behavioral health — like psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and licensed counselors — work closely in the same clinics with primary care providers.

Is help available for children and teens?

It depends on the clinic. All of the family medicine clinics, like the one where Vanessa Rollins practices, serve patients of all ages. Some other primary care clinics serve just adults.

What do I do if I need help immediately?

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please call 911 or go to your local hospital. Colorado Crisis Services also offers 24/7 support at 844-493-TALK (8255) or by texting TALK to 38255.

Devastating timing: ‘We are already filled to the brim with trauma. Now, this.’

Vanessa Rollins is a UCHealth psychologist who cares for patients at UCHeath Family Medicine in Boulder. She lives a few miles from the King Soopers.

Rollins has a doctorate in psychology and together with behavioral health colleagues and primary care providers, she provides mental health and counseling services to patients of all ages, from children to older adults.

The Boulder tragedy is hitting especially hard both because of the location and the timing, Rollins said.

“We’re already filled to the brim with trauma. We’re going through this pandemic. We’ve had a constant barrage of unrest. And now this happens,” Rollins said. “Our coping resources are at an all-time low and now we’re tasked to deal with this.”

Grocery stores are also part of most people’s routines.

“This hits deeply at the core of our sense of safety. We all go to grocery stores. Now, something so necessary and mundane feels scary,” Rollins said. “You think, ‘I could have been there too.’”

Tragedies can awaken trauma from the past

Rollins remembers the trauma that patients suffered after the Aurora shootings. Many people were afraid to go to the movies. Now, some people will be afraid to go grocery shopping.

New tragedies also can reawaken anxiety and fear from past events. People who have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the past can suffer from it again.

Vanessa Rollins is a psychologist in Boulder. She shares advice for dealing with the Boulder mass shooting
Vanessa Rollins is a psychologist in Boulder. She shares advice for coping with the Boulder mass shooting. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Rollins.

Furthermore, research shows that many people are already dealing with mental health challenges related to the pandemic.  Studies have shown that four of every 10 adults have coped with anxiety or depression over the last year, up from one in 10 prior to the pandemic. Children and teens have been suffering as well.

If you are dealing with distress related to the tragedy in Boulder and you feel overwhelmed, please seek help, said Rollins, who is also an assistant professor in Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

If you are upset and sad, that’s a natural response.  Rollins offers the following advice for coping with the trauma of mass shootings like the Boulder tragedy.

1. Regain a sense of safety.

After going through a scary experience – even from afar – many people won’t feel safe. Rollins advises patients and friends to take actions that help them feel more secure.

“Establish a safe physical environment for yourself. Maybe that means having your dog sleep in bed with you for a couple of weeks or having a friend or partner close by.’’

Or, if you don’t feel safe going to the grocery store right away, that’s OK.

“There’s no right way to deal with this kind of distress in the short-term. Do whatever will help you feel safe again,” she said.

2. Manage emotions and physical symptoms of fear.

“A range of emotions from sadness to anger is normal, and it’s also very common to feel that distress in our bodies,” Rollins said

Many people have trouble sleeping or eating after experiencing a traumatic event. Some people experience symptoms like racing heart and muscle tension.

Relaxation exercises can help with sleep and other symptoms, and calm the mind.

Deep breathing exercises are incredibly easy and effective.

Rollins recommends what’s known as 5 by 5 breathing.

Simply inhale deeply and slowly through the nose for five seconds, counting 1-one thousand, 2-one thousand, 3-one thousand, 4-one thousand, 5-one thousand. Then exhale very slowly through the nose and mouth, again counting for five seconds: 1,2,3,4,5. You should feel calmer as you breathe. Free apps are available that guide you through paced breathing with sound or imagery.

Simple ideas to comfort yourself as you cope with the Boulder mass shooting

  • Keep up basic self-care. Take a walk. Cook a nourishing meal. Read a novel. Listen to music. Call a friend. Take a bath. Meditate.
  • Do something kind for someone.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Practice deep breathing.
  • Be honest about your feelings. Call a crisis line or your medical provider if you need help. If you are someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.
  • Avoid using substances to “treat” yourself. If you’ve struggled with addiction in the past and are in recovery, seek support.

Progressive muscle relaxation is another technique that can help and is a simple technique of tensing one muscle group at a time followed by a release of the tension. Written scripts or guided practice are easily found online.

“Some people really need to process their experience and emotions with others, particularly with those who are going through the same thing, while others don’t want to talk about it at all. Either way is OK,” Rollins said.

Limiting exposure to media is also important to reduce the stress related to mass trauma.

Rollins emphasizes that people handle media differently. For some tuning in and hearing every detail about the violent event helps them process and move forward, while others need to completely shut it out in order to cope.

With social media, it’s possible to get oversaturated very quickly. One man streamed video content from inside the King Soopers. Followers saw violent scenes that may cause reverberations of trauma long into the future. Other people followed police activity through scanner apps and heard disturbing conversations about where survivors and victims were found in the store.

People can suffer from PTSD even if they were not immediately impacted, Rollins said.

“Because of social media, we have ways of exposing ourselves to what happened that make us deeply part of the event. Research tells us that the closer you are to the trauma, the greater the risk of developing PTSD and we now have the ability to be right there, even if we weren’t at the scene,” she said.

Blanket bans on media don’t usually work, so be wise about media exposure.

“Some people need information to help regain a sense of order. But don’t just sit there and watch hours of CNN, control your news intake so that it doesn’t impact sleep or connection with others,’” Rollins said.

3. Connect with loved ones and your social support system.

Talking about trauma and tragedy can be very helpful. Seek out friends, family members or people in your community and share your feelings and experiences. In general, it’s helpful to talk about fears and experiences.

But, it’s also normal for some people to feel numb.

Especially because Coloradans have experienced so many mass shootings, the reaction of some people is to shut out the tragedy and avoid discussions.

“Becoming desensitized is a coping mechanism. It’s your body’s way of saying it just can’t handle any more tragedy. That coping mechanism may be quite protective and adaptive in the short term, but it may not work very well in the long run,” Rollins said.

“When you constantly turn off strong emotions, there’s a risk of shutting down in general and losing the ability to experience emotions like joy and deep connection to others,” Rollins said

You can end up “numbed out.”

While talking with friends can be very helpful, if you notice physical or emotional symptoms continuing, then it’s wise to seek professional help.

“If you’re finding the distress isn’t going away, that you’re becoming more anxious, hopeless, or pulling away from people, then it’s wise to seek help,” Rollins said.

Anyone who is dealing with ongoing PTSD probably needs help coping with it when episodes of mass violence occur.

Common symptoms of PTSD are intrusive thoughts or images about the traumatic event, nightmares, intense emotions around the event, and physiological symptoms like jumpiness, a racing heart or hypervigilance.

People who have experienced trauma previously are at greater risk if they get exposed again.

“Trauma tends to be cumulative. With a history of trauma there’s a greater risk of being traumatized again,” Rollins said.

She knows people who survived the Columbine mass shooting; they continue to get re-traumatized by the media attention and news stories every time the anniversary of the event gets publicized.

4. Recapture your sense of purpose in life, or reconnect with your religious or spiritual faith.

While it’s not always possible to pull yourself out of a depression, we sometimes can make ourselves feel better by focusing on the aspects of our lives that give us meaning.

If you are a religious person, connect with people who share your faith. If you are a spiritual person, reach out to others who share your spiritual values and practices.

“Focusing on the greater purpose or meaning in life can give you back a sense of optimism,” Rollins said.

That’s why some people feel better when they step in to help after a tragedy.

Others find solace through gratitude journaling. Start or end the day by writing down something for which you are grateful.

Focusing on meaning and gratitude can help you move past tragedy.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.