What Traumatic Events Like Mass Shootings Do To Our Brains & What We Can Do About It

The average American college student in 2017 has seen the headline, “Worst Mass Shooting in American History,” four times in their life. Two of those shootings occurred on school grounds, one in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida and, most recently, at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, Nevada. While these horrific events are a forceful reminder of the evil that permeates inside our free nation, they are also an opportunity for a mass overload of information from every angle — and knowing how to consume this information in a healthy manner is proving to be a problem in and of itself.

It is only natural to want to be informed about what is going on in the world, specifically when a traumatic event occurs. The National Center for PTSD even notes that “it is important to help survivors recognize the normalcy of most stress reactions to disaster.”  These reactions range from blame, confusion, and anger to emotional numbing. However, with the recent conception of the 24-hour news cycle, these reactions have the ability to occur more frequently — and, ultimately, cause unseen damage.

Jennifer Fricke, a senior at Appalachian State University, said the first time she felt glued to her phone when a news alert broke.

“I remember sitting in on a show that a bluegrass band was doing on my college campus when I heard about the attacks in Paris in November 2015. The series of attacks were said to be the single deadliest terror attack in France. I got a notification on my phone that there was breaking news of a terror attack in Paris, but the article didn't have many details," Fricke said. "I spent the next two hours of the show staring at my phone, just waiting for the next article with more information.”

What once was a family of four sitting around their television set for the nightly news recap, has quickly turned into, down to the second alerts of what is going on in the world, complete with carefully curated headlines sent to our electronic devices, emails and tablets.

E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing science at UC Irvine, suggests that due to the constant loop of graphic images and videos, it’s only a matter of time before stress sets in. 

”We suspect that there's something about repeated exposure to violent images or sounds that keeps traumatic events alive and can prolong the stress response in vulnerable people," Holman said. "There is mounting evidence that live and video images of traumatic events can trigger flashbacks and encourage fear conditioning. If repeatedly viewing traumatic images reactivates fear or threat responses in the brain and promotes rumination, there could be serious health consequences." 

While these health consequences are hard to pinpoint, Holman notes, “It will take further study before we know if people's rise in acute stress symptoms turns into or feeds long-term psychological injury.”  While the injury may not be diagnosed, the pain that accompanies it, is still prevalent.

Kelsey Campbell, a recent graduate of Asbury University and now a writer for a non-profit, said that feeling like she could see herself as a victim of these traumatic events splashed on the television screens has only heightened her sense of awareness and fear.

"Unfortunately, this isn't the first mass shooting in America. It is the largest. But I think the part that bothered me the most was that — unlike the cases of Syrian refugees hunting for clean water — I could picture myself in these people's shoes," Campbell said. "On any given night that could have been me. Going to an open-air country music festival is my idea of a perfect night, but now I feel like we, as a generation, won't be able to attend a concert like that one without feeling on edge or constantly scouring the crowds for an exit." 

This urgency and fear is understandable, and the stress people feel following such events as what occurred in Las Vegas is explainable. "In a national survey of U.S. adults, three to five days after the September 11, 2001, attacks, people reported watching an average of eight hours of television related to the attacks. Those who watched the most coverage had more substantial stress reactions than those who watched less television coverage," according to the National Center for PTSD. 

However, children are more likely to feel greater stress simply because of their lack of full development, and for young mothers and public school teachers like Cori Wilson, that only exacerbates her fears.

"I have other students that understand that veracity is more important than face value, which is all the media shows us. I am scared that one of them will slip through the cracks of my compassionate, loving, tender teacher hands that only seek to do good and bring good," Wilson said. "I am scared that I will not notice the signs, the red flags, the warnings that something might be wrong in their mind, that they feel hopeless. I worry that I will not give one of them the community they are looking for and they will go searching for it elsewhere, whether it be in a gang, a sect of some white-supremacy group, or that they won't find one at all, leaving them to their own devices inside their injured minds."

The fear and stress that are created following these events not only seeps into our own lives, but our fear for the lives of those around us is only magnified. 

Ashelyn Roberts, recent graduate of Western Carolina University and now Meeting Event Manager, Sheraton Seattle Hotel understands first hand just how important media is in her work, but just how powerful it is.

"The biggest thing I noticed about myself in response to social media is that I didn’t feel emotionally prepared to handle the overload I knew would be on Facebook this morning," Roberts said. "Whether it’s a long post of encouragement or a sad post about a loved one that was lost, or a long post about a political stance on the matter, I felt like I needed to emotionally process this tragedy on my own before I could even open my Facebook. It was almost like I feel like once I open the app, I am carrying the burden of 500 peoples’ grief along with my own, which is something we never had the immediate access to prior to social media." 

 

So what can we do?

Journalism professor, Sue Bullard at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and former managing editor of the Detroit News said she believes "it's natural to feel overwhelmed" after violent events like what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday — especially because of how impossible it is to escape the grisly details from social media to radio to TV B-roll.  However, she suggests sourcing news from the area where the event occurred  because they can offer better informed broadcasts. (There's also this great resource from Public Radio International that outlines five steps to ensure you're a better news consumer.) 

"I do think on days like this the local news outlet – in this case the Las Vegas Review-Journal – are often good sources simply because they typically know the area, the police and the people on the ground. For the same reason, I’d look to the Los Angeles Times simply because it’s the closest major news outlet," Bullard said, but also notes that it is perfectly okay to just shut it off for a bit. "I think at times we need to just turn off all the screens and stop watching. Take a break from the news." 

The U.S Department of Affairs suggests taking similar action to protect your brain from traumatic news overload: "Limiting viewing just prior to bedtime, reading newspaper and journal articles rather than watching television, and talking to people about the attack as a means of gathering information." 

The world we've come to live in is one of hyper-awareness and over-stimulation, but if you have capability to use this and channel it into something productive, do it. Fight back, flip the script and use the power of social media to inform your friends about policies and legislation in the pipeline, to spread the facts about local elections and how they can get involved with relief efforts. Donate blood if you can. Throw a party with your friends and, before anyone can have a drink, write a letter to your legislator.

Staying informed is crucial, but approach the news with caution and when you begin to feel overwhelmed, know that it is perfectly okay to shut off and take a break.

Kaylen Schroeder, a recent graduate of the University of Florida, sets a pretty good example of how to utilize social media as a tool for education and awareness. 

"I am not scared of the news and all the events social media has opened my eyes to, but I am more aware of my surroundings," Schroader said. "The media today has made me more alert and awake than I used to be." 

Take charge collegiettes, and know we're all in this fight together.