Mass shootings in the news

Mass shootings in the news:  Finding the balance between paying attention and taking care.

By: Janine D’Anniballe, Ph.D.
Director of Trauma-Informed Care at Mental Health Partners

In the United States, mass shootings are, unfortunately, no longer isolated incidents. We are only halfway through 2019 and there have been more mass shootings than there have been days (CBS news). Whether it’s through social media, television, print media, or radio, each of us is being exposed to this trauma daily, and this level of exposure takes a toll.

For those directly affected by mass shootings, the impacts are obvious– death, injury, Post-Traumatic Stress, and other physical and mental health issues.  Additionally, those of us who hear and see these stories from a distance are inevitably impacted.

Levels of Impact

When we hear about another mass shooting, it is common to feel helpless, anxious, sad, or angry. These are normal human responses to egregious violent acts.  There are additional factors that may influence how great an impact a particular story has on our emotional and psychological state.

We can read three positive stories (or 30 for that matter) and one negative story, and the negative one will stick with us.  You might notice that this negativity bias operates when we receive positive and negative feedback as well.   Paying attention to negative information has early roots in our evolution. For our ancestors, it was critical to pay attention to and remember the negative, to be acutely aware of possible threats or danger, to survive.  Today, our modern brains still are wired for this negativity bias even though we aren’t foraging in the forest for food and safe shelter.

The medium through which we learn of the latest mass shooting also matters. While reading or hearing about violence can be distressing, seeing the violence is often more impactful. When we see images of violence, we’re more likely to reexperience the events, to replay the images, and to have more intrusive thoughts about the event. Watching videos of the violence compounds the impact as we are both seeing scary images and hearing threatening audio. Our bodies’ response is to send stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine coursing through our nervous system and to seal those sounds or images into our memory so that we will remember to stay safe when we perceive a similar threat.

Finally, the way that we relate to the incidence of violence determines the level of impact. The more we relate to the situation, the place, or the people, the greater the negative the impact on us. For example, I went to the University of Dayton in Ohio as an undergraduate. I recall spending time in the Oregon District where the Dayton shooting took place. Upon learning of the Dayton shooting, of course I felt profound sadness for the victims and their families, but I was also saddened because the positive memories I had of that place were now changed. Due to my connection to the location, I experienced a more acute sense of loss than for a similar tragedy in a less personally familiar part of the country.

When we share identities with the targeted groups, there is also a heightened secondary trauma response. Members of marginalized groups who are suffering daily traumas related to discrimination and oppression will often experience heightened impact when perpetrators of violence target their identity groups. This may be the experience for members of the African American community who learn of a white supremacist attack on a Black church, LGBTQ folks who learn of a homophobic shooter attacking a gay nightclub, or for the Muslim community after an Islamophobic shooter attacks a Mosque. Sharing an identity, especially a marginalized identity, with victims of violence can further damage our sense of safety, humanity, and hope.

Taking Care

In the face of these daily acts of mass violence, how do we take care of ourselves? Because these are not one-time events, these cannot be one-time responses. Regrettably, mass shootings are growing more common and more deadly, so strategies for self-care after trauma exposure now need to be woven into our lifestyles.

  1. Seek support in community. We may be tempted to withdraw and can get lost swimming in negative thoughts and replaying images. You are not the only one disturbed by the latest news stories, and do not have to process in isolation. Proactively seek supportive people with whom to talk and spend quality time.
  2. Back to the healthy basics. When faced with overwhelm, helplessness, heartbreak, and anguish, we may seek out ways to numb. While that reaction makes sense, unfortunately, drinking, drugs, and other numbing strategies will only temporarily suppress negative feelings. Good healthy coping practices—sleep, exercise, time in nature, spiritual practices, nutritious food—will help your body and brain metabolize the feelings so they can move through you.
  3. Limit your exposure. We may get drawn into the news cycles and watch video after video, post after post, of terrible violence followed by disturbing commentary. On the flip side, we may want to avoid the news and turn everything off. Pay attention to how you are functioning; when are you approaching your saturation point? Make intentional choices about how you consume media to find a balance. For myself, I avoid watching news footage and social media video feeds, and instead choose print media from local/national sources that I trust.
  4. Create change. The scale and frequency of violence can lead to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. We may be tempted to give up. However, getting involved in preventing violence and creating spaces for healing can build individual and community resiliency in enduring trauma and creating safer communities. Activism is a powerful practice of self-care.

Are you, or a loved one, experiencing a mental health crisis? For immediate help, please contact the 24/7 Statewide Crisis Line: 1 (844) 493-TALK. If you, or a loved one, would like to learn more about trauma-informed care, please call Moving Beyond Trauma at (303) 443-8500.