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ptsd & trauma

Effects of Gun Violence on Mental Health

Exposure to gun violence can leave you feeling shocked, fearful, and deeply unsafe. It can also impact your long-term mental health. But there are ways to cope with gun trauma and heal.

How gun violence affects mental health

It’s hard to ignore the barrage of news reports about gun violence. Heartbreaking stories about mass shootings tend to grab headlines around the world. Then there are incidents of gang violence, police shootings, and domestic violence involving guns that can make you question how people can be so brutal. Meanwhile, accidents that involve firearms highlight the consequences of irresponsible gun use.

These stories can be even more horrific when children or teens are involved and young lives are cut short. In 2020, firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the United States. If you’re a parent, it’s understandable if you worry about sending your child off to school each day.

Whether you’re directly involved in an incident of gun violence, you’re a witness to a shooting, or simply hear about the events on the news, you can become traumatized or develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Experiencing a shooting in person can be especially traumatic. It can leave you in a state of shock and despair, overwhelming your nervous system and making you anxious and hypervigilant. If you live in an area prone to gun violence, you may be fearful or on edge every time you venture outside. Simply reading about mass shootings and gun violence in the news can make it hard to focus at work or school.

Losing a loved one to gun violence can result in intense grief and anger, especially if you believe politicians, officials, or law enforcement have let you down. It’s also natural to feel frustrated when media and political figures try to lay the blame for gun violence entirely on mental illness. This myth only further stigmatizes people with mental health problems and, in many cases, distracts from finding actionable solutions to the problem.

Whatever your experiences of gun violence, though, there are ways to cope with the trauma, manage your fears, regain your emotional balance, and move on with your life.

Disparities in exposure to gun violence

Shootings don’t affect all communities equally. People living in low-income areas are more likely to suffer from gunshot wounds, while minorities are disproportionately at risk of both fatal and nonfatal shootings. Inequalities and discrimination in other areas of society, such as housing, health care, and education may all be contributing factors.

The effects of gun violence on children

The trauma surrounding shootings can have harmful effects on developing minds. Research shows that exposure to gun violence increases levels of withdrawal and anger in children. It can also desensitize them to violence and prime them to become violent themselves. Children don’t necessarily have to see the violence with their own eyes. Just hearing about it through the media can shatter a child’s sense of safety and affect their mental health.

One 2021 study found that kids and teens who lived within blocks of a shooting were more likely to visit the ER for mental health reasons following the incident. Symptoms like panic attacks and suicidal ideation were reported, and exposure to multiple shootings increased the odds of a trip to hospital.

Exposure to gun violence can create a ripple effect that continues to impact children throughout their lives. A study in 2020 revealed that living near shooting incidents had an adverse effect on children’s academic performance. They also suffered from increased dropout rates, depression, and learning difficulties.

Although this can all seem overwhelming, you don’t have to feel helpless. While reducing gun violence requires a community effort, there are plenty of steps you can take to protect your mental health after traumatic events unfold. You can also help your children and other loved ones cope with the stress and difficult emotions in the aftermath of violence.

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Signs that you’ve been traumatized by gun violence

High-stress events affect both the mind and the body. But not everyone reacts to traumatic events in the same way, so there are many signs to look out for.

Even if you weren’t directly exposed to an incident of gun violence, you may still experience some symptoms of traumatic stress. For example, if someone you know was affected or if you viewed graphic news reports about a tragedy.

Physical symptoms

Following atraumatic event, your body can enter a state of hypervigilance and anxiety, with symptoms such as chest tightness, dizziness, and rapid breathing. You may also experience cold sweats, trembling, and aches and pains. Other physical symptoms include:

Unfocused thoughts. It can be difficult to concentrate when your thoughts are racing or fixated on a traumatic event. You might feel as if you’re constantly searching for hidden dangers around you.

Changes in appetite. You may overeat or lose your appetite, which in turn can have a negative effect on your energy levels and mood.

Changes in sleep patterns. Anxiety, nightmares, and flashbacks can impact your sleep quality, leading to oversleeping or daytime fatigue.

Emotional symptoms

Emotional symptoms of trauma can encompass all sorts of feelings, ranging from numbness to despair to fury. There’s no right or wrong way you should be feeling. You may also feel:

Disbelief. You might be so shocked by gun violence that you deny the horror of what happened.

Persistent fear. You may feel easily startled when you hear loud noises, or you feel crippling anxiety when you’re in a place that reminds you of the violent event.

Grief. Many people feel deep sadness following a shooting, especially if lives were lost. However, you can also feel despair that safety measures failed or that someone would even attempt to commit such an atrocity.

Helplessness. You may feel unsafe and unable to protect yourself or your loved ones from future violence. You may even want to withdraw from society or take drastic measures to shield your friends and family members from potential threats.

Anger. You might feel angry at the perpetrator, politicians for failing to provide enough protection for citizens, or a higher power for not intervening.

Shame or guilt. Ruminating on ways you could have stopped the shooter or blaming yourself for what happened are common reactions to gun violence. Some people even experience survivor’s guilt, where you feel guilty for surviving an event that claimed the lives of others.

Signs that your child has been traumatized by gun violence

As with adults, children can respond to traumatic stress in a variety of ways. While the signs may be hard to spot in very young children not old enough to talk, teens may react to their stress by lashing out at others. In children of any age, feelings of distress can come and go in seemingly unpredictable waves.

Infants may cry and scream and be harder to soothe. Or they may seem more withdrawn than usual and appear to freeze up in certain situations. You might notice changes in their sleeping or eating habits as well. Young children may regress back to habits such as sucking their thumb or bedwetting.

If your child is old enough to talk, they might experience nightmares or physical ailments such as frequent stomach aches and headaches. They may have trouble with schoolwork, seem to be moodier than usual, or withdraw from friends, family, and hobbies.

While these symptoms can also occur in teens, they can also be accompanied by drug and alcohol abuse and disruptive behavior at home or school. They may even experience suicidal thoughts.

[Read: Trauma Care for Children and Adolescents]

For people of any age, gun violence can result in psychological and emotional wounds that take time to heal. However, the following strategies can help you and your loved ones cope with the traumatic stress and regain a sense of peace and normalcy in your life.

Coping tip 1: Acknowledge difficult feelings

The trauma of being exposed to gun violence can evoke all sorts of unpleasant and surprising emotions. You may feel a powerful sense of rage toward the shooter or society, for example, or experience guilt and shame for not doing more to help. You may even feel numb to the events altogether.

Know that all these reactions are normal, and accepting them is just part of the healing process.

Be patient with yourself. Not everyone heals at the same pace. Don’t aim to speed up the process or guilt yourself if symptoms seem to linger. If you lost someone to gun violence, recognize that grief can be a long process. Give yourself time and space to mourn.

[Read: Coping with Grief and Loss]

Connect with your emotions. Rather than suppress those feelings, acknowledge them without judging them for being present or powerful. HelpGuide’s Emotional Intelligence Toolkit can help you learn to manage even the most distressing emotions.

Find healthy outlets. If your emotions feel overwhelming, look for ways to express them in healthy ways. Consider opening up to a trusted friend or family member or talking to a therapist. Or, if you’re not ready to share your feelings with someone else, try writing down your thoughts in a journal.

Tip 2: Empower yourself

Whether you experience it firsthand or witness nonstop media coverage, exposure to gun violence can make you feel helpless, believing there’s nothing you can do to keep you or your loved ones safe. But there are positive actions you can take to regain a sense of control:

Learn about the problem. Aim to gain a thorough understanding of the causes of shootings and possible solutions. What factors inflame the problem? How do different experts propose addressing the issue? What has historically helped curb violence? What efforts have failed? Gun laws vary by location, so get familiar with your local regulations as well.

Find ways to get involved. Push politicians or organizations to take steps to address the problem. Work with local community or political groups, voice your thoughts online, and be willing to have productive conversations.

Tip 3: Connect with others

When the world seems violent and unpredictable, you might believe the best course of action is to isolate yourself from other people and public spaces. In fact, interviews with gun violence survivors reveal that isolation due to fear of surroundings is a common issue.

Positive social interactions flood your brain with hormones that calm your nervous system and improve your mood. So, rather than wall yourself off from others, you’re far more likely to find comfort by embracing and expanding your social network.

Connect with survivors. Remember that you’re not the only one who’s coping with the mental health effects of gun violence. Get in touch with others who share your concerns or are mourning the loss of loved ones. Following a tragedy in your local area, attend memorials and find ways to volunteer to help those in need. Forging a stronger sense of community and uplifting one another can be an empowering experience.

Enjoy lighthearted outings. Not all your interactions need to center around guns or trauma. Indulge in social situations that steer you toward the many joys of life: Anything from board game nights with family members to traveling with friends. You might even feel motivated to make new connections by joining local groups dedicated to your favorite hobbies.

Tip 4: Be active

Exercise may not be the first thing on your mind after a tragedy, but being physically active can help you manage stress and enhance your mood. Exercise reduces stress hormones and boosts your body’s production of feel-good chemicals. Some studies show that, in addition to reducing depression and anxiety symptoms, aerobic exercise might even be helpful in treating (PTSD) symptoms.

[Read: The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise]

Be mindful. Use your senses to ground yourself in the moment as you exercise. If you’re swimming, focus on the feel of the water against your skin. If you’re practicing yoga, focus on the pace of your breathing. This added mindfulness can help further reduce your stress.

Do what you love. You don’t necessarily have to start going to a gym. Walking around your neighborhood, dancing in your room, or playing sports with friends are all forms of exercise. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. It doesn’t all have to be in a single session though. A little physical activity here and there can make a big difference to your mood and outlook.

Add elements that boost your energy. If you’re feeling unmotivated, try playing an upbeat song before you exercise. You can also invite friends to join you in your workouts.

Tip 5: Manage stress

Although you should expect some degree of stress in life, too much can have serious physical and mental consequences. Adopt healthy ways to manage both short-term and long-term stress.

When you’re experiencing a sudden spike in stress—for example, after seeing something that reminds you of a traumatic shooting—grounding techniques might offer some relief. Use your senses to focus in on your environment. Savor the taste of a drink, explore the feel of your shirt’s fabric, or pay attention to background sounds. This will center you in the present moment and pull you away from distressing thoughts.

Aside from managing stress in the moment, you can also use these strategies to ease your overall anxiety levels:

Explore relaxation techniques. To tap into your body’s natural relaxation response, regularly practice deep breathing exercises, meditation, or self-massage. If you want to try something a little more active, yoga and tai chi are good options.

[Read: Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief]

Reduce exposure to violent media. News reports, social media posts, and television shows that remind you of gun violence can increase your anxiety over time. Be mindful of how you feel after consuming content. If you feel distressed or overwhelmed, spend less time in front of the screen and look for more engaging activities.

Make time for what you enjoy. Sometimes the best way to de-stress is to simply embrace activities that make you feel good. Read your favorite book, watch a TV show you love, or treat yourself to a soothing walk in the park.

Tip 6: Get enough sleep

From nightmares to difficulty falling asleep, anxiety surrounding gun violence can disrupt your sleep cycle in various ways. This lack of sleep can then fuel negative moods and can even contribute to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Use the following tips to guide yourself back to better sleep habits:

Try to keep a consistent sleep schedule. If you didn’t get enough sleep the night before, try taking a nap at some point during the day, rather than sleeping in, which can interfere with your body’s internal clock.

Develop a calming evening routine. Don’t consume distressing media content before bed. Instead, take a hot bath, read a few chapters from a book, or practice a relaxation technique. This will prime your mind and body for rest.

Understand how foods, drinks, and other substances affect your sleep. Things like sugar, refined carbs, caffeine, and alcohol can all potentially reduce the quality of sleep. 

Helping a child deal with gun violence

It’s often difficult for adults to process gun violence. Talking to your children and teens about it can seem like a daunting task. However, your support can be crucial in helping a child overcome traumatic stress and build resilience.

[Read: Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events]

Know that you’re a role model. In times of crisis and trauma, your child or teen is looking at you for guidance. Take time to soothe your own anxiety and then talk with your children when you feel calmer. The goal isn’t to suppress your feelings, but rather to avoid outbursts that may make your child feel unsafe or more frightened than they already are.

Tailor your message in a way that’s age-appropriate. Teens might prefer to hear concrete facts, such as gun safety information and the motives behind violence. However, it can be more difficult to talk to young children about the subject. Let them know that guns are tools for adults, and some adults misuse those tools. But also be clear that there are good people in the world who try to stop the violence.

Encourage them to voice their concerns and feelings. Ask your child how they’re feeling after potentially traumatic events. Listen to their account of the situation, answer any questions they may have, and clear up any misconceptions. For example, if they seem to be blaming themselves for the violence, let them know it wasn’t their fault. Let your child know that it’s okay to cry and acknowledge negative emotions.

Offer reassurance. Talk about safety in your home and at school, if that’s a concern. Offer physical comfort by cuddling them or holding their hand. Maintaining certain routines, such as regular meals together, can also foster comfort and stability.

Help find a sense of normalcy. If your child seems to be obsessing over the violence they witnessed, such as replaying the scenes on TV, gently guide them away from the subject. Spend quality time with young children, reading books or playing games. Encourage teens to enjoy time with friends and embrace their hobbies. Make exciting plans with them, such as family trips, to reinforce the idea that the future isn’t always unpredictable and frightening.

Be patient as they grieve. When it comes to loss, give your child time to mourn. Loss doesn’t necessarily mean the death of a friend or loved one. They may also mourn the loss of a sense of safety. Discovering that other people can commit acts of violence can be a startling realization for young children.

When to seek professional help

Following a traumatic event, feelings like shock, anger, and guilt tend to fade in time. However, sometimes people develop PTSD. This is when you continue to experience symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts, sleep disturbances, or flashbacks long after the incident is over.

If you recognize that symptoms of PTSD are interfering with your daily functioning, it’s important to seek professional help. Read: Post-Traumatic Stress Relief (PTSD).

When you’re dealing with traumatic stress, you may wonder if you’ll ever regain a sense of control over your life. And if a loved one is affected, you might worry they’ll always feel “stuck” in that traumatic moment of gun violence. Know that with the right care and resources, things will get better. You and your loved ones can heal from your emotional wounds and rebuild your sense of security and trust in the world.

Author: Sheldon Reid.

 

    Get more help

    What You Can Do Right Now To Help End Gun Violence – Quick steps to help address gun violence. (Sandy Hook Promise)

    Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers – Strategies and talking points to use when engaging with children about violence. (National Association of School Psychologists)

    Survivors Connect – Tool to connect with gun violence survivors. (Everytown Survivor Network)

    Coping after a traumatic event – What to do after a traumatic event. (Royal College of Psychiatrists)

    Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do – Understanding trauma and how you can help your child. (National Institute of Mental Health)

    Last updated: September 21, 2022