This Is Your Brain on Violence: How Watching Regular Mass Killings on the News Can Cause Serious Health Impacts
After a week in which the public witnessed multiple violent deaths in just a few days—first Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers, and then five fellow officers in Dallas at the hands of a sniper, not to mention the Bastille Day attacks in Nice—an entire country (and world) is experiencing what psychologists call collective trauma.
While the severity of one’s reaction might depend on how close they are (physically or emotionally) to the situation, no one is immune. According to clinical psychologist Elma Whittaker-Augustine, “Crime and violence also impact us psychologically, whether we are directly exposed, involving self, a family member or friend, or indirectly exposed, via our residence in the community/society or exposure to media coverage.”
Even watching Diamond Reynold's harrowing livestream of her boyfriend Philando Castile's death from the safety of one's own home, or reading about the Bastille Day attacks on the pages of a newspaper doesn't mean the watcher or reader won't come away with psychic wounds.
In fact, there can be serious emotional and psychological damage from exposure to such violence. Monnica Williams is a psychology and brain-science professor at the University of Louisville and a leading researcher on mental health and ethnic identity. “Some people, depending on their experiences, can become withdrawn or emotionally cut off from people,” she said in an interview with the Washington Post. “They feel afraid. Jumpy. Unsafe.” Many even report increased physical ailments. As Whittaker-Augustine noted, “When distress persists, our physical health is also compromised, e.g. we can develop hypertension, diabetes, heart problems.”
There are biological reasons for this. “Our brains are predisposed to focus on negative things,” psychologist Mary McNaughton-Cassill told the Washington Post. “For survival, you want to remember bad things and avoid them.”
Some experts believe this reaction results in overcompensation, especially in the case of mass shootings. In an interview in Medical Express, Syracuse University professor Leonard Newman says that “people end up with an exaggerated sense of the frequency with which they occur—and that leads people to feel more vulnerable to them.” The interview was conducted in 2015, before the horrific recent events, and Newman’s remarks might seem misguided in the face of the extreme violence of the last week, but he notes in the same interview that “we're becoming less numb to them... What we are getting numbed to is all of the thousands of shootings that don't make headlines.”
This leads to the question, what do we do about this? How can we protect ourselves from the harm of collective trauma without becoming numb, without putting our heads in the sand? When is it crucial to stay informed and when does reading account after account become counterproductive, increasing sadness and anxiety, without presenting solutions?
There are certainly no easy answers, but the excellent Buzzfeed podcast Another Round has a list of self-care tips created following the church shootings in Charleston in 2015, which co-hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton updated to reflect the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
The Department of Veterans Affairs's tips for self-care after a disaster also offer helpful insight. One of their recommendations: "If [your thoughts] are causing you to feel stuck or helpless, try to think of more energizing, helpful thoughts." Nigatu and Clayton appear to have taken that advice with an aspirational note for a better future. As they wrote in their newsletter, "May we all soon see the day that this stops happening."