Trauma and Gun Violence
Every day Americans are killed by gun violence, and many Americans report that they or someone they care for have experienced gun violence in their lifetimes. You may be struggling to understand why this is happening, or you may be dealing with the aftermath of a shooting incident in your own life. The thoughts, feelings and even physical effects after this type of event is called trauma.
What Is Trauma?
A trauma happens when someone feels threatened with serious harm, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional and is all too common. Researchers have found that trauma can change the brain and the body’s make-up, which can lead to diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and mental health disorders. Not everyone who experiences a trauma will have long-term effects but for some, the impact of trauma can happen for a long period of time. Because of this, it might be helpful to know the signs and symptoms of trauma as well as how to manage them.
Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Trauma
Individual responses to a traumatic event will vary; some reactions may go away on their own over a short period of time while others may show up at a later date. It’s different for everyone because of the nature of the traumatic event, the availability of emotional support, a past or present life stressor, personality types and coping styles. Some signs and symptoms include, but are not limited to the following:
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Eating too much or too little
- Racing heart
- Easily startled
- Overly tired or exhausted
- Overwhelming fear
- Helplessness, hopelessness
- Panic and anxiety
- Intrusive thoughts
- Frequent nightmares
- Mood swings
- Avoidance of things that might remind you of the event
- Lack of interest in things you once enjoyed
Recovery from trauma is possible, but it can be a painful journey and may take time. If you have experienced the trauma of gun violence you will probably never forget it. Gun violence survivors often suffer from long-term effects of their trauma. However, there are things you can do that may help you to become less distressed and better able to cope.
Talk about it. Talking with family members or friends about how you are feeling and what you are thinking may help to decrease the intensity of your feelings while helping you to better understand things. Many survivors find it helpful to talk with others who have had a similar experience. You may not always feel like talking about it, and that’s okay. Take your time and when you are ready, find someone who will support you. For some people, sharing feelings with others is really tough. Try journaling as a start. This may eventually lead you to feel more comfortable sharing with someone you trust.
Honor your feelings. It is important to recognize you have been through something very difficult and painful. With that pain may come a lot of different thoughts and feelings. Some people feel trauma in their bodies too, like feeling exhausted or sore. Try to be comfortable feeling the way you are, and remember your strengths. Past coping skills may also help you in the present.
Limit television, radio, and social media. Every day we see more and more tragedy in the news and on social media. Reading about other tragedies and disasters day after day can take its toll on you emotionally, mentally and physically. While you cannot totally disconnect from the world around you, consider limiting the amount of time you spend watching, listening to and reading the news and other media. It might be tempting to keep the news on the television after a national event, like a mass shooting, but also consider shutting off. The constant flow of images and details of a mass shooting can cause secondary trauma to you and your family. Instead, find other activities to do that bring you comfort , like spending time with family and friends or doing an activity that brings you joy.
Get involved. After a tragedy, many people feel called to action so other people don’t feel the pain of gun violence as they have. Just like Everytown for Gun Safety, there are community groups that work to make the community a safer place for everyone. If you choose this path, check in with yourself to make certain you are in a place emotionally, mentally and physically where you are able to do the work you want to do without being re-traumatized. In addition, getting involved in other advocacy groups or community work can potentially give survivors a path to healing as well, like volunteering for the SPCA or an animal rescue group – remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to the gun violence movement if it’s not right for you at this moment.
People who have experienced a trauma are at risk for being re-traumatized. Re-traumatization happens when someone suffers new traumatic stress reactions after another, similar event. These reactions may include intrusive memories of the first trauma.
One of the most effective ways to cope with another crisis event is to prepare for one before it happens. You can do this by creating your own self-care plan and sharing your plan with a family member, friend or someone your trust who can help support you if and when a crisis occurs. Developing a buddy system, or sharing your self-care plan with someone else can help you monitor one another’s level of stress and potential warning signs for trouble.
Experiencing a community crisis in your own backyard or among your family and friends can be terrifying and can also bring up thoughts and feelings of past trauma. Like individuals, communities can be traumatized as well. Community tragedies may also highlight ongoing community conditions, such as lack of opportunity, limited economic mobility, fear of discrimination and other social issues. Despite the large number of gun violence incidents each day in America, as people we show the ability to recover from the pain of trauma and communities can do the same.
When to Seek Professional Help
It might be hard to know if therapy with a mental health professional is needed. If signs and symptoms continue for a long time and they begin to interfere with everyday life, it might be time to talk with someone. Ask yourself “Is my experience causing me ongoing pain that seems to be getting worse, not better?” Or, “Are there areas of my life that are suffering because I don’t have the energy to take care of them?” A trauma counselor or therapist who understands trauma can help process the traumatic event and can help decrease its effects. For children or teens who have experienced several traumas and are facing ongoing stress may be more at risk for developing ongoing symptoms.
To find additional resources, please go to the Finding Help section of our web page.
DISCLAIMER. This information does not and cannot constitute or substitute medical advice. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund is an organization dedicated to educating and bringing awareness around the issue of gun violence prevention, and does not provide treatment advice. This fact sheet merely provides general information and coping tips. More importantly, mental health conditions are complex, people differ widely in their conditions and responses, and interactions with other conditions and treatments are best evaluated by a physical examination and consultation with a qualified clinician. Everytown suggests that this page is a good starting point to discuss potential needs with your physician or other health care practitioner.