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March 21, 2018

The Psychological Impact of Mass Shootings

Almost every day that we check our news feeds or turn on our televisions another disastrous incident has occurred in our country. In particular, mass shootings and particularly, school shootings have become more common, with the death tolls climbing. Most recently, the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead and many more injured. Rather than deliberate the usual discourse around the politics of gun control or the role that mental illness plays into an individual carrying out such a violent act, I would like to focus on the psychological impact for the survivors of such horrific circumstances.

In the wild, animals constantly undergo stressful events. For example, a gazelle fleeing from the chase of a predator, once safe, is able to shake off that trauma and relax its body. Animals are also able to dissociate when threatened with overwhelming harm. Humans, however, function very differently; during a stressful event, individuals resort to the primal systems in their brains, inducing responses of either fight, flight, or freeze. After escaping from a stressful or traumatic situation, rather than the brain and body returning to a calm state, we hold onto our trauma, and it may affect the wiring of the brain and be “stored” within the body.

After experiencing a traumatic event, such as a mass shooting, it is common for individuals to experience severe anxiety, guilt, sadness, depression and even dissociation. Over time, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety, disordered mood or increased substance abuse may occur. Feelings around the event, such as guilt, anger, fear, shame, and grief arise. As time goes on and a person begins to make sense of what has happened, some of these symptoms and feelings can subside; however, for many, the effects can be lasting. People commonly have flashbacks or intrusive re-experiencing of the event in which they feel as if they are back at the scene of the incident, experiencing the sounds, sights and feelings all over again.

After a person experiences a traumatic event it is crucial that they seek professional help and guidance. Even after adjusting back to everyday life, trauma can house itself within the body and reappear in many ways. Some people begin to have health issues that medical professionals cannot explain, such as headaches, sleep disruption, difficulty concentrating, chronic pain, memory lapses, and/or digestive issues. While there are various forms of therapeutic interventions, standard talk-therapy is only one component necessary in the treatment of trauma. One therapeutic approach that is particularly effective in addressing trauma is Somatic Psychotherapy which utilizes a methodology to identify what an individual is feeling and experiencing within their body. The goal is to be able to exhibit some release of this stored trauma (i.e. when you think of a particular event, what are you feeling? Is your stomach hurting? Are you experiencing any numbness?…etc.). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has also been shown to be very successful in the treatment of trauma. EMDR is a strategy that facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories to bring about an adaptive resolution.

Psychological Care and Healing Center (PCH) utilizes psychodynamic psychotherapy, somatic therapies (somatic experiencing, sensorimotor therapy, EMDR), and special group therapies designed to address trauma such as Trauma Timeline, Process Groups, Mentalization, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Trauma Phase I and Phase II, Seeking Safety, and Family Systems. We also offer experiential therapies which are beneficial in the healing of trauma, such as expressive writing, pottery, knitting, movement therapy, Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), Trauma-informed Yoga, music therapy, and animal therapy. Engaging in artistic expression allows for the brain to relax and release the trauma that is housed in the body by being focused on task or activity. By combining these different treatment modalities carried out by our expert clinical staff, clients are able to see noticeable change and improvement in their lives and overall functioning.

While we all experience difficult times, some individuals experience severe trauma, such as that of a mass shooting. Through the proper therapeutic interventions and support, it is possible for these survivors to move forward and lead a better and happier life by addressing their trauma through deep caring and psychological support.

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