High school science lab. A college lecture hall. The grocery store. These are places that most Americans have been in at some point in their lives. All places where Americans have lost their lives or suffered injuries due to mass shootings.
As of Sept. 1, 2019, the 244th day of the year, there have been 283 mass shootings in the United States.
With each occurrence, these incidents are highly publicized by the news media. They capture the public’s attention for days, the initial shock wears off and then it seems that most people return to their normal lives – until the next shooting.
With a constant connection to information at our fingertips, these horrific events can negatively impact our mental health. Dr. Ellen Teng, a clinical research psychologist at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, explains how consuming repeated coverage of mass shootings can impact an individual.
“It can elevate people’s general levels of anxiety and make them wonder about typical things they do throughout the day and how safe they are engaging in these activities,” Teng said.
For many who have first-hand experience with a traumatic event including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), seeing coverage of mass shootings can contribute to heightened levels of anxiety to the point where it starts to interfere with daily activities.
PTSD can manifest differently from person to person. Some signs include having intrusive thoughts about mass shootings, finding that your thoughts are being taken over by what you’ve read or seen in the news, and mood changes such as irritability, increased hypervigilance, and avoidance.
“A person may avoid the things they would normally do, like going to the grocery store at a different time when there are likely to be fewer people. In extreme cases, some may not go at all and have their groceries delivered instead,” Teng said.
While the coverage of mass shootings will have a unique influence on each individual, Teng also acknowledges the potential overall shift in reality for society as a whole.
“I think it can contribute to a greater sense among people that the world is not safe. People may become more prone to being suspicious and question things they never had to in the past. They may wonder, “Do I really need or want to go to this party? Or take my kids to the park?” If this type of violence continues, I do believe it will take a toll.”
If you have any signs of heightened anxiety due to the coverage of mass shootings, know that what you are experiencing is normal.
“It’s a natural reaction to have and it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the individual,” Teng said. “Symptoms should improve as more time passes. In the aftermath of events like mass shootings, it is important for people to stay connected with their family, friends, and support network. It’s not helpful to isolate or withdraw from society. In situations where people notice their symptoms are getting worse over time, it’s important to seek professional help.”
Dr. Teng is an associate professor with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor. Learn more about the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic or call 713-798-4857.
-By Melissa Tucker