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This Life with Gracie: Is our safe place just an illusion?

If you’re prone to reading and listening to as much news as I do, you might be feeling a little anxious or downright scared about now.

I don’t get rattled very easily, and even when I do, I’m able to find comfort in knowing that no matter how things look, God is in control. Having said that, there’s something extremely unsettling about this life, beginning with the rising tide of unruly parents and spectators at youth sporting events followed by the mass shooting at the Jewish synagogue in Pennsylvania followed closely by one in California followed by my daughter’s recent encounter with Clayton County police.

People like to point to high crime rates in the black community to justify police shootings. Well, that fear works both ways. Even people we think should know better, who ought to model civility, empathy and compassion for their fellow man, seem to have lost their way. When a cop runs into you and doesn’t even get out of the car to ask if you’re OK, you know things are bad.

In the wake of the Thousand Oaks bar shooting, I was struck by the number of people who described the club as their safe place and the reaction to the shooting in Pennsylvania. No one ever thinks they’ll be gunned down at a place of worship.

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They are, for sure, our safe places, or so we thought.

Listening to and reading the news, I couldn’t help wondering if such a place exists and if it ever did. Are any of us really safe? Were we ever?

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Dr. Dan Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University, believes that for the first time in our lives, reality just about mirrors our perception that none of us are safe.

“Persistent feelings of helplessness and a lack of control will contribute to increased fear, anxiety and stress around feelings of safety and security,” Flannery said. “Intense and persistent media coverage of events contributes to the feeling that these events happen often and everywhere, and unfortunately, reality is catching up to perception. While we cannot accurately predict who will perpetrate the next mass shooting, what we can predict is that soon another incident will occur.”

Flannery said that the increase in frequency of mass shootings leaves us with the sense that these events can happen anywhere — in schools, places of worship, shopping malls, movie theaters, outdoor concerts, bars and restaurants — even though statistically the chances are low.

Dr. Dan Flannery is director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western University in Ohio. CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“Because these events have happened more frequently and in a variety of places and in a variety of communities, it used to be that a first response from victims or witnesses was ‘I cant believe it happened here’ or ‘I didn’t think it would ever happen here,’” Flannery said. “Now the reply is ‘I guess it really does happen everywhere.’”

But could someone living in Atlanta be experiencing symptoms similar to PTSD in the wake of last week’s shooting even though they live thousands of miles away from California?

RELATED: 8 tips to consider before your church falls victim to gun violence

According to Catherine Franssen, professor of psychology and director of neurostudies at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., the answer is yes. Events like mass shootings are a major cause of stress for all of us.

Catherine Franssen is a neurobiologist who studies stress at Longwood University. CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“Incidents of gun violence lead people to immediately question their own safety, setting off a chain reaction in the fear centers in our brain,” Franssen said. “This is why many Americans are currently grappling with increased feelings of anxiety, vulnerability, a loss of self-control, and helplessness. The realization that we can’t control our surroundings can be terrifying for people.”

Here’s what’s really scary about our times. We probably weren’t ever safe, but the more mass shootings happen, the less safe we are.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Franssen maintains, however, that there are ways for us to feel safe again, to regain some sense of control over our lives.

We can start by taking a break from the news and allowing our brains and emotions to rest and recover. We can start conversations with the people who run the places we frequent. Even if you live in a county or state that allows open carry, quiz them about whether guns are allowed in their place of business and maybe find a place where restrictions are tight.

“For a lot of people, carrying a weapon gives them a sense of security, but it doesn’t diminish the chance a shooting will happen,” Franssen said. “People who are armed are generally targeted first.”

Planning and thinking about where you will be at different times and what you can do should a shooting occur is also helpful, as is seeking social support.

“We all need to reach out and talk to each other about this,” Franssen said.

Finally and perhaps most important, she said, find out who is doing something gun-control related and get involved even if it’s in small ways. It can help you feel like they are making a difference and provide meaning to what happened.

“Stand up and be vocal about what’s happening,” Franssen said. “We can’t let it be someone else’s problem.”

Not if we ever want to feel safe again.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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