I was listening to a story from NPR’s 1A the other day that included an in-depth discussion of school shooting prevention and the psychological impact on schoolchildren who now have to participate in things like “active shooter drills.” One of the big takeaways is that these drills, especially if not done right, may cause more harm than good. That harm you see would come from things like anxiety and PTSD.
One of the girls in the discussion reported having nightmares of being shot after her school started doing active shooter drills. Furthermore, a school psychologist discussed how these drills could cause the logical part of the brain to shut off as the “fight-or-flight” part of the brain took over, and that it could be a significant amount of time before the brain relaxes again, thus impairing a student’s learning. All of which paints a grim picture for the impact these drills may be having.
And all of this got me to think, where is the line between practical progress and panic-inducing practices?
Finding this line, of course, can be particularly problematic for people who already struggle with anxiety disorders. Fire drills may turn into fire phobias for example and suddenly an injury has occurred without a flame even being lit.
And I am certainly not an expert. But in my opinion, the line starts by questioning what the intended purpose of the exercise is. For example, when you learn to scuba dive, an instructor will turn you air off so you know what it feels like when you run out of air. This is important because if this happens at 30 or 60 feet down, the sooner you realize there is a problem the sooner you can signal to your buddy for help. By contrast, during the nuclear threat, I struggle to imagine what people thought ducking under a desk might have accomplished except to instill more fear in the youth of the time.
And as someone who struggles with anxiety disorders, and who doesn’t need additional training to imagine worse case scenarios, I know the challenge of this balancing act all too well. The balance between preparedness and panic is a fine one. It is also far from fixed. What induces panic for some people may not induce panic for others. And all this brings us back to mindfulness.
Being mindful of what stresses you out is the first step. Once you understand the anxiety, you can work with professionals to make any modifications you may need in order to be more prepared. For example, my problem with fire drills is not the fear of fire, but the fear of the crowds created by the drills. Understanding this is the first step to developing a fire plan that works for me and will allow me to be prepared if a fire does occur without exacerbating my anxiety.
And I suspect as more research comes out, something similar could be done to prepare students for the stress of active shooter drills.