It was mid-afternoon on April 20, 1999, when a friend stopped by to ask if I’d heard the news. Two young men had entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. They ended the lives of 12 fellow students and one teacher, seriously injured more than 20 others and then died themselves. I sat in stunned silence.

Then I thought of my own son and daughter who were high school students in Colorado Springs. And I thought of my older son who was attending college in Denver. Had they heard the news? Were they afraid? Were they safe?

Shock and grief gripped the nation. Life had changed for all of us because the illusion of safety had been shattered. Since then there have been public shootings in schools, churches, parks, movie theaters, office buildings and concert venues. Even if your community hasn’t been directly affected by tragedies of this magnitude, reports of violence still have an effect. You may sometimes feel anxious about dangers that could come your way. Or maybe you struggle every day with feelings of worry and apprehension. I want you to know that you are not alone in feeling afraid or having questions.

I remember how I felt after that April day so many years ago: helpless and confused. Where was God while this tragedy was unfolding, I wondered. Why didn’t he stop those two boys? Couldn’t he have intervened? Though I couldn’t understand or explain it, deep inside I knew that even when God doesn’t prevent tragic circumstances, he is with us and he cares.

There will never be easy answers to issues like violence. Sin does have a hold on our world. But let’s consider a few truths and tips for living with and finding peace amid a culture of uncertainty.

Recognizing the difference

Do you know the difference between fear and anxiety?

Fear focuses on the present – what’s going on right now. It’s the natural human response to a dangerous situation that’s real at this exact moment. Fear sees what is. It causes adrenaline to surge through your body, providing the energy needed to take immediate action to protect yourself (known as flight or fight). Fear can motivate you to do what’s necessary to survive a crisis. It serves a real purpose in a situation of danger.

Anxiety is rooted in the imagination and focuses on the future – what might or might not happen.

  • What if my brother or sister is in danger?
  • What if a person shows up at my school with a weapon?
  • What if the plane crashes?

Rather than providing energy for flight or fight, anxiety causes tension and irritability, keeps you awake at night, gives you stomach pain and headaches, and prevents you from enjoying daily life. Anxiety does not serve a real purpose. It only steals your peace.

Imagine it’s a quiet morning at school and you’re feeling calm. Then you hear some kids in the hallway talking about a lockdown that took place at another school last week. You feel yourself starting to tense up. Your mind starts racing. What if someone calls and threatens my school? What if something horrible happens during our student assembly? Anxiety has quietly replaced your present calm with a feeling of dread that something bad may happen in the future.

Dealing with anxiety

It’s one thing to be prepared by paying attention to instructions during a drill or knowing procedures for an emergency situation. It’s another thing to let anxiety paralyze you. One way to deal with anxiety is to make peace with living in an unpredictable world. There is no way for any of us to know for certain what tomorrow will bring. We don’t even know what might happen five minutes from now. Maybe that’s why Jesus asked, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). Learning to accept the unknown of the future can help you shift your thoughts away from anxiety.

To do that, stay focused on the here and now. Continuing in Matthew 6, Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (verse 34). Today has plenty for us to focus on without adding tomorrow’s concerns.

Ask God to help you refocus your thoughts

In addition to praying, you may want to sit quietly with your eyes closed for a few minutes. Take a few deep breaths, hum a simple tune, recite a verse of comfort, quietly sing a song or count backward from 100. You may want to go for a walk outside where you can breathe in some fresh air while you focus on the beauty around you. Drawing, dancing, playing a musical instrument, reading, running and engaging with others are all activities that can help you refocus on the present moment.

Did you know that the neurons in your brain create paths according to what you most often think about? Just as the tires on cars and trucks create deep ruts in a dirt road, you can create “ruts” of positive thought patterns that help you overcome anxiety. So when anxiety creeps in, remember these words: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Controlling what you can

We may not have control over what happens at school or in other public places where shootings have taken place, but we do have control over what we allow to feed our thoughts.

Speak up

It’s important to speak up about anything around you that seems amiss. Tell a trusted adult if you’ve seen, heard or read something concerning. Don’t hesitate to report any threats of violence (in person or through technology) to your parents, teachers, police officers, etc.

Another way you can speak up is in prayer

Go to God with tough questions such as, “Why did you allow this to happen, God?” and “Where were you?” The Psalms are full of honest questions and angry declarations as people wrestled with their own fears and disappointments. The psalmist wrote in Psalm 10:1, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” You, too, can take your complaints and anxieties to your heavenly Father.

Avoid bearers of bad news

No doubt you’ve noticed that some people seem to thrive on drama. If there’s bad news, they’re among the first to share it. They might post it on Instagram, send a text or jump on Twitter to see what others are saying about it. They’re not necessarily trying to help or harm anyone; it’s just that stirring up emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, confusion and distress somehow makes them feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. Avoid their negative influence by walking away from the conversation, unfollowing their social media or ignoring their text.

Monitor media exposure

Crime, drama and negativity are often highlighted in the news and in entertainment. Certain shows and movies seem to focus on destruction and despair. While it’s important to stay informed of what’s going on in the world around you, overexposure to graphic imagery and death counts can be distressing. The anxiety that it produces can be contagious. So protect your mental health and emotional well-being. Monitor your media and minimize your exposure to stories that make you anxious.

Be honest

Drills, lockdowns, school shootings and other traumatic events can be hard to talk about. But you’re not better off by processing it on your own. Talk to your parents about what you see and hear. Look to adults and resources at school that may help answer your questions and calm anxiety. Ask your youth pastor or mentor to pray with you about your worries. Engage with friends who understand your commitment to trusting God in the unknown.

Look for the positive

Fred Rogers (from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ” There’s definitely wisdom in focusing on the reality that a lot of kind, brave and caring people help in tragic situations. Bad things sometimes happen, but many people are working hard every day to make sure we are safe. How about we be the ones who highlight hope and truth – even when the news is scary?

Remember the bigger story

It’s important to remember how seldom these tragic events really happen. There are far more safe days at school than unsafe, and many more people are being helpful than harmful. The story of life is so much bigger than violence and loss. And beyond the pain in this life, there is comfort in the biggest picture of all, “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

I’d like to never again feel like I did on that April day in 1999, and I’d like to be able to assure you that there will never be another school shooting. But I can’t. And I’m sorry that this broken world includes violence that can at times trigger fear and anxiety. As we face each new day, may we take to heart the commandment found in Joshua 1:9 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

First things first

In the years following the tragedy at Columbine, schools across the nation improved their safety procedures and planned better strategies for dealing with emergency situations. Here are a few practical plans for you to consider at school and in other public places:

  • Find out how your school plans to respond if there’s an emergency or a threat of violence. Will there be an immediate lockdown? What are teachers equipped to do?
  • Identify exits and the areas in your school that seem the safest. Are there rooms you can lock from the inside?
  • Report anything suspicious. As you’ve probably heard many times, “If you see something, say something.”
  • Stay aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t constantly look for trouble; just observe what’s happening and take note of anything that seems unusual or “off.”
  • Turn to your parents and other trustworthy adults for guidance. It would be good for you to have three adults in mind whom you can confide in on a regular basis.

Here to help

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, Focus on the Family Canada is here to help. Feel free to contact us for a free, one-time consultation with one of our registered counsellors. Call us at 1.800.661.9800 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific time.

Related resources:

Marie writes for Focus on the Family in the U.S. and has been featured in Brio magazine. As part of her job, she regularly corresponds with teens and understands the pressures they face.

© 2020 Focus on the Family. Used with permission. Originally published in Brio® magazine.

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