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Coping with the Psychological Trauma of a Mass Shooting

How to cope psychologically when the world no longer feels safe.

Elise Riva/Pixabay
Source: Elise Riva/Pixabay

This morning we woke up to the devastating news of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. A lone gunman opened fire from an upper floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, killing at least 58 people and injuring hundreds of others. News broadcasts captured people leaving the scene covered in blood and in states of shock. All of our hearts go out to the direct victims and their families as well as those whose lives were threatened. They will have to cope with the long-term psychological aftereffects of terror and shock. The legacy of trauma created by this event has wide ripples. Even watching the event on television or hearing about it can take us out of the apparent normalcy of our lives - shattering our assumptions about living in a safe world.

We assume the world is safe and predictable

According to psychological theory (Janoff-Bulman 2002), traumas create long-term distress not only through the neurobiological effects of experiencing a threat to life but also because they shatter our assumptions about the world. Specifically, they challenge the assumptions that:

  • The world is safe and predictable
  • The world is just and meaningful; good people experience good outcomes
  • The world is benevolent; people are inherently good

These assumptions are not necessarily true, but they can be psychologically healthy and adaptive. The assumption of safety protects us from living with the fear of random violence and death so we can get on with our lives, do our work, date, marry. raise families, care for our loved ones, innovate, and build new ventures. The assumption of predictability helps us feel protected by making wise and prudent decisions, being responsible, and not taking unnecessary risks. The assumption of a just world helps us feel protected by being a good person; to believe that the reward for doing the right thing is safety and the chance to build a happy and successful life. The assumption of benevolence helps us see the best in other people so we have enough trust to build new relationships, forgive others, and function in a society where we depend on others in business or in tasks of daily life.

Traumas shatter our assumptions about the world

A trauma like the mass shooting in Vegas puts all of these assumptions into question, making us feel like we’re standing on shaky ground. We might turn to religion to restore our belief in ultimate justice and goodness in the universe. We might try to think of ways to differentiate ourselves from the victims so we can feel safe (e.g., “I wouldn’t go walking down that dark alley”). This can lead to unnecessary victim-blaming and lack of empathy. In the case of the Vegas shooting, it’s not even possible. There is nothing inherently risky or unwise about attending a music festival or taking the family for a vacation in Las Vegas.

What you can do:

So how do we deal with the fact that the world isn’t safe, that there are traumatized, desperate, angry, malevolent, or psychotic people out there who can create destruction and chaos? There is no perfect answer, but the strategies below may help you get back to your normal life:

Acknowledge your feelings about the event

Don’t try to just shove your feelings down because that just doesn’t work long-term. Take some time to connect with your anger, fear, or sadness. Feel it in your body and understand that these are normal reactions to a trauma—even one experienced vicariously.

Practice radical acceptance

Acknowledge that the world isn’t completely safe and that you don’t have complete control over what happens to you, but make a decision not to let this derail you. It’s ok to compartmentalize and deliberately focus your attention back on your own life and what is most important for you to do today. There's no need to feel guilty. You didn't do anything wrong.

Don’t overestimate the personal danger

When mass shootings happen, the horror of the event makes us overestimate the likelihood of this type of event happening to us. In reality, there are millions of people who go to concerts or visit Vegas without experiencing harm. Try to get out of the “fight or flight” alarm response and take a step back so you can logically evaluate the likelihood of personal danger.

Do something active to cope

Taking action to soothe your feelings, express your anger, or reach out to the victims can be very helpful. Talk to other people, donate money, or write down your thoughts and feelings. Think about volunteering for a cause like stopping child abuse, which is often the cause of adult violence. Advocate for better prevention and treatment of mental health and addictions.

Try to live a meaningful life despite societal trauma

Focus on the good that you can do in the world and the things that make your life meaningful. You can’t stop all the bad things in the world but you can live by your values, speak up against injustice, and be a positive influence in your family and community.

The best response to mass shootings and other traumas is to acknowledge and express the pain, share it with others, take steps to soothe and comfort yourself, and then take action to build a positive, healthy life and contribute to creating a better world despite the challenges.

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