In 2021, mass shootings in the United States averaged out to two per day, according to Gun Violence Archive. The organization defines mass shootings as shootings that leave 4 or more people dead or injured.
The current gun violence crisis is a type of collective trauma, or large-scale event that disrupts a community’s sense of safety and security.
An environment where death and serious injury happen so frequently and unpredictably can be traumatic in and of itself. So, repeated mass shootings can easily lead to trauma, even if you weren’t directly involved.
Grief often follows hard on the heels of trauma. You may mourn:
- the lives lost in a particular incident
- the less-violent world of years past
- your own faith in humanity
Grief and trauma can become deeply enmeshed, to the point where you find it nearly impossible to tell which feelings represent grief and which represent trauma.
The complicated and painful emotions that come up in the aftermath of a mass shooting may feel difficult to process and address. These 7 tips offer a place to start navigating them.
If you find yourself tearing up at news of the latest school shooting, chances are you aren’t just crying about this specific incident. You might be also mourning the thousands of gun deaths that came before this latest shooting.
You may also feel upset about social media conspiracies claiming the shooting victims were actors or never existed. Or maybe you’re indignant about what you consider a weak government response to the crisis, or the ways gun lobbyists can
All of these problems feed and reinforce each other, making for a complex crisis with no quick fix in sight. In short, you don’t have to worry you’re “overreacting” to mass shootings. Despair, panic, rage — these are all understandable reactions to a deeply disturbing situation.
All grief is valid
Someone who lost their child or sustained injuries in a shooting will undoubtedly experience different forms of grief and trauma than someone who only read about the incident.
But this fact doesn’t negate your pain and grief, or mean you shouldn’t experience these feelings. The deep navy of the ocean doesn’t make the sky above any less blue, after all — it’s just a different shade.
Grief and trauma have many of the same symptoms, but they are functionally different:
- Grief, a way to process loss, often involves sorrow and yearning. You might, for instance, grieve the loss of a shooting victim you knew and wish they were still alive.
- Trauma describes your emotional response to threats or potential threats. If you didn’t know any of the shooting victims, you may not have strong personal feelings about their deaths. Still, graphic media coverage of the shooting may give you nightmares about getting shot yourself.
A combination of grief and trauma can also make recovery more difficult. Trauma may, for instance, lead you to stop talking with friends or going online to avoid reminders of mass shootings.
Taking some time for yourself can temporarily help ease stress, certainly. But completely removing yourself from society for extended periods generally doesn’t help. Cutting off social support might actually increase your sense of loss, making it harder to cope.
Everyone experiences grief and trauma differently. Some people cry and lash out. Others isolate themselves and go emotionally numb. The signs can be very subtle, so you may not even realize you’re reacting to the mass shooting specifically.
Signs to pay attention to
Potential signs of trauma and grief after a mass shooting include:
One of the most important ways of coping with tragedies like mass shootings? Talking about them to people you trust.
Your feelings will eventually come out somehow, and turning them into words can offer a healthier means of expression than tamping them down until they appear in the form of stress rashes or anxiety dreams.
On a community level, discussing a large-scale trauma can help people make sense of the event. People can exchange information to learn who was shot, where the violence happened, how the shooter got their gun, and so on. A shared set of facts can make it easier to brainstorm ways to prevent similar incidents.
Social support becomes especially important when a mass shooting targets a marginalized group. For example, LGBTQIA+ people experienced disproportionately higher levels of stress after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. The attack on a community space heightened many LGBTQIA+ people’s sense of vulnerability and fear of gathering in visibly queer spaces.
Many people find social ties a vital means of building resilience after tragedy. Community and social support can play a particularly essential role for LGBTQIA+ People of Color, who often face violence on multiple fronts and frequently go unacknowledged in public solidarity efforts.
Engaging with social media after a mass shooting or other act of violence can affect your emotional health, especially if you come across images or videos of the shooting.
According to 2020 research, exposure to graphic images of a mass shooting can:
- spike your stress levels after exposure
- increase your long-term risk of post-traumatic stress symptoms
- indirectly affect your daily routine, including work and relationships, via prolonged stress
Text posts can become emotionally overwhelming, too — particularly when they contain personal attacks or conspiracy theories. To protect your mental health, you may find it helpful to set some boundaries around your social media use.
You can think of a boundary as a sort of fence for your social life. While you can’t prevent people from sharing graphic or upsetting things online, you can control how much of that material you’ll let through your “fence” and engage with.
A few ways to set boundaries on social media:
- Filter hashtags related to the shooting.
- Make liberal use of the block button when you encounter trolls.
- Check to make sure information comes from a reliable source before engaging with a post.
- Carve out chunks of your day when you don’t check your social media feeds.
Get more guidance on navigating social media after a mass shooting.
In the aftermath of a tragedy, it can seem like everyone’s talking about it: on TV and the radio, in line at the store, even at school and work. The sheer amount of exposure in your everyday life can feel overwhelming, even if you’ve set strong digital boundaries around the shooting.
During this time, try going easy on yourself. You may need more rest or have a harder time focusing than you typically would, and that’s OK.
People around the country are experiencing similar challengers. A 2021 study examining 54 years’ worth of mass shootings linked them to negative changes in the United States’ gross domestic product. In other words, mass shootings appear to make the country, as a whole, less productive — and plenty of people could use a good dose of self-care.
Self-care is a form of passive, or reactive, coping. In a nutshell, it can help you reduce the negative impact a stressor has on your life.
Active coping, on the other hand, involves trying to solve the problem directly. Some people find it easier to manage feelings of grief and stress when they throw themselves into a project that could lead to change.
In the context of mass shootings, active coping usually means activism and political engagement. Some people cope with the trauma of mass shootings by joining activist pursuits, including:
- fundraising for nonprofits that help gun violence victims and survivors
- attending protests
- participating in local town halls to support actions against gun violence
Activism can help people strengthen community ties and develop a sense of agency. And when initiatives succeed, they can provide a precious source of hope.
If you don’t yet feel ready for active coping, that’s absolutely OK — every person’s recovery looks different. Just know you do have options for taking action if it’s something you’re interested in.
Gun violence has a massive impact on people across the United States. This major issue affects everyone in the country, to some extent.
If you’re finding it tough to work through grief, trauma, or other distress related to mass shootings, you’re not alone — and you don’t need a mental health diagnosis to benefit from a little emotional backup.
A few signs professional support could help:
- You have a lot of free-floating anxiety and can’t seem to relax.
- You compulsively check for updates on each latest shooting, often ignoring other things you need to get done.
- You feel guilty and responsible for the victims’ deaths, even if you couldn’t have done anything to prevent the shooting.
- You avoid going to public places or near crowds for fear of getting shot.
- You feel utterly hopeless in the face of all this violence.
The ongoing gun violence crisis is a collective trauma that has many people around the U.S. worrying for their safety as they mourn the continued loss of life. Even if you haven’t lost someone to gun violence yourself, you might experience plenty of grief and distress about the state of the country.
Turning to loved ones can make a major difference when it comes to navigating these difficult feelings. It can also help to draw boundaries for your social media use, practice self-care, and participate in community-driven activism. A trauma therapist can also help you address any overwhelming or persistent mental health symptoms.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.