July 23, 2012 at 2:34 PM ET
It's a nightmare scenario we've heard about again and again: mass shootings at political rallies, college campuses, crowded food courts. Friday morning, many Americans woke up to the news of one of the worst mass shootings in recent memory in an Aurora, Colo., movie theatre, where a lone gunman shot 71 men, women and children, killing 12 of them.
News like this is chilling to all of us, but what about those who already harbor fears of public spaces? Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, says the Colorado shooting will most likely exacerbate the fears and phobias some people have about going out and about in public.
"What took place in Colorado is only going to fuel that fire," she says. "A lot of times when people have a phobia, they focus on possibility rather than probability. It could happen versus it's likely to happen. People will say, 'That's not likely to happen,' however, because this just happened, it increases that fear that they already have."
Lombardo, author of "A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness," says events like this can also increase stress, which in turn, can ramp up people's fears.
"When people have a higher stress level, their fears or concerns or even their irrational thoughts -- thoughts not based in fact -- tend to get stronger," she says. "That's another way something like this can affect people's phobias and fears. The overall stress level goes up and that will strengthen any other fear, make it more powerful, or any other negative thought someone might have."
Responses to the tragedy on Twitter certainly seem to indicate a heightened sense of unease. "Afraid to see dark knight rises Saturday after #Colorado #batman shooting!" tweeted @nadamtawfik. "This is unreal."
To cope with anxieties and fears like these, it's best to turn to exercise and other healthy stress relievers. "Don't grab for Ben & Jerry's therapy," she says. "Spend time with a loved one, go for a walk, practice deep breathing, listen to music, or watch a funny movie. Any of these things will help your stress level."
Focusing on the bright side is also effective, she says.
"I recommend my clients review all the positives," she says. "Things that are going well in their lives. I have them focus on all the times when good things happened when they were out in open spaces."
Dr. Dan Iosifescu, director of the mood and anxiety disorders program and associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, agrees.
"The best way of handling it is reminding yourself that this is just one very negative situation among thousands and thousands of normal situations," he says. "Remind yourself that this is something very unusual and let it pass."
Does it help to come up with a battle plan, like @FeliciaGanci, who tweeted "Sitting in the theater waiting to watch #batman watch must admit I'm kinda scared! I've already planned my escape route ..."
"That depends on the person," says Lombado. "For some people, if they're objective about it, as in, 'If something bad happens, I'll do X, Y and Z,'" then [a battle plan] could help."
Coming up with a plan of action may prove too distressing for others, though, she says.
"If they're too emotional, as in 'Oh my God, if I'm shot, it will be horrible and my kids won't have a mother and my poor husband, etc.,' that will make it worse," she says. "We call this fortune telling in psychology. When you predict the future negatively and emotionally react as if it's imminent."
The most important thing, Lombardo says, is to try to keep the fear from getting stronger.
"I'm not saying everyone should go out to the movie theatre today, but if you go to a movie theatre a fair amount, I encourage you to not let this discourage you from going," she says. "Your fear will only get stronger and stronger and it could go from a fear to a phobia."