How living with gun violence affects your health in the long run

Key conclusions

  • Because gun violence in the United States is the highest ever, many live in fear of losing their lives or loved ones in a mass shooting.
  • Being in a constant state of struggle or flight means that our brains are constantly looking for danger.
  • Whether or not you have been personally affected by gun violence, chronic stress can lead to significant mental and physical health problems if left unchecked.

Gun violence in the United States has been on the rise in recent years. More people than ever have been touched by the grief, loss and heartbreak that come with surviving or losing a loved one in a mass shooting.

Even those who have not witnessed gun violence are constantly exposed to horrific stories, photos and videos that emerge after the mass shootings. These shootings are repeated daily, leaving many in fear and anxiety.

According to the archives of gun violence, so far in 2022 there have been at least 281 mass shootings, resulting in 1,190 injuries and 396 deaths. Experts say that living in this reality has detrimental effects on the health, both mentally and physically, of countless people.

“Even if you have not been directly affected by a gun incident or a violent crime, just hearing about it can cause intense feelings such as fear, anger or helplessness,” said Sarah Gupta, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety and depression. a medical writer at GoodRx, told Verywell.

Constantly worrying about the safety of our loved ones can also have a significant impact on mental and physical well-being, Gupta said.

How gun-related trauma harms physical and mental health

Experiencing the trauma of gun violence breaks the lens through which we see the world, according to Gerard Lawson, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, a professor in Virginia Tech’s counseling education program. This raises questions about whether we are really safe and whether there will be new acts of violence.

It is well established that human beings have a hierarchy of needs, he said, and one of the foundations of that hierarchy is safety and security. If this basic need is not met, he said, people will struggle to meet their psychological needs and the need for self-improvement, which will lead to challenges with relationships, self-esteem, self-actualization and more.

“Our brains were set up to identify threats to our safety or well-being,” Lawson said. “However, this process was designed to identify the nearby saber-toothed tiger so that we could prepare or fight or escape, and once that danger was over, we would be back in stable condition. This vigilance and vigilance system was never created to keep us under constant pressure, as we often find ourselves today. ”

Being in such a state means that our brains are constantly looking for danger, he added. This level of stress can lead to anxiety and depression, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, sleep disorders, distraction from work or school, obsessive thoughts and more.

Chronic stress is also extremely severe for the body and can lead to physical ailments such as heart disease and high blood pressure, according to Gupta.

Lawson said that both survivors of gun violence and family members of victims often experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including, but not limited to, intense fear, avoidance, self-destructive behavior, overwhelming guilt or shame, and seizures. panic.

How children are affected

Just as the consequences of experiencing or being exposed to gun violence can be extremely harmful to adults, it can be even more harmful to children.

Children are extremely sensitive to their environment, said Dr. Od Ennen, a child psychologist and co-director of the children’s cognitive-behavioral therapy program at Mass General Hospital.

“There is significant evidence that children can experience secondary trauma even if they have never experienced direct gun violence,” Henin told Verywell. “Children are sensitive to non-verbal signals of potential danger and can understand the suffering and anxiety of adults about the recent mass shootings.”

A sense of security is crucial to children’s physical, psychological and social development, she said, and a lack of perceived safety can make it difficult for children to focus on other important developmental tasks, such as friendships or schoolwork.

Like adults, children can also experience prolonged stress and chronic agitation of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our battle-escape-freeze reactions. This system has evolved to deal with brief, recurring stressors, Ennen said, and the risks of mental and physical health problems increase when triggered constantly.

“Children may experience anxiety and panic attacks, sleep problems and physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches,” she said. “Some children can be irritable and more aggressive. Others may withdraw and feel numb or excluded. ”

They may also feel helpless or hopeless about the future, she added.

Over time, as in adults, chronic stressors such as exposure to gun violence can lead to psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse, as well as the same serious medical problems as adults.

How to deal with grief and anger

Whether you have been personally touched by gun violence or heard about what is happening to others, Gupta said it is important to acknowledge your feelings and remember that it is perfectly normal to feel grief, anger, sadness or disappointment.

“It’s natural to have an emotional response to violence, and acknowledging those feelings can help you seek support,” she said.

Lawson added that it is important to monitor whether these reactions begin to interfere with important activities of daily living or whether they have lasted longer than you are comfortable with.

If this is the case, Lawson strongly encourages the restriction of news coverage of violence. Although he said it was important to know the names of the victims, see their faces and hear their stories, managing the details of the mass violence could help avoid overcrowding.

“Reading about events on reputable news sites, unlike social media, is one aspect,” he said. “Social media does not have a filter, journalistic ethics and an editor who decides what is appropriate for the public to see and read.

Even with reputable media, it’s important to “keep to the limit of how much time you spend consuming this news,” Lawson added.

When you take a break from the news, Lawson recommends doing something that will engage a different part of your brain, such as going outside to play sports or work in the garden. Exercise in particular is a useful way to combat trauma because when you move your body, it helps to overcome some of the stress that is created by being in this constant state of struggle or flight, he said.

Lawson also suggests immersing yourself in hobbies or activities you enjoy, such as reading, watching TV, listening to music, or losing yourself in a sporting event.

“Channeling your feelings into activism can also help you regain control,” Gupta added. “And of course, for many people, therapy or support groups can be valuable – especially if you have symptoms that interrupt your daily life.”

What does this mean for you

It is important to understand that emotional reactions to violence and tragedy are normal, but these reactions can cause health problems if ignored for long periods of time and begin to interfere with daily life. Taking a break from the news, doing activities that make you feel good, and seeking professional support can help combat the effects of life with the stress of gun violence.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.