Hypervigilance. Numbness. Anxiety. Exhaustion. The unrelenting violence of a string of mass killings — in a mall, in a home, at a bank, a birthday party, a school — is exacting a psychological toll. Experts say that even people far away from the scene can experience increased stress and anxiety, the Washington Post reports. This year, the U.S. has had 22 mass killings by gunfire; at this time last year, there had been eight. While mass killings draw the media spotlight, they are a small fraction of gun deaths, which include tens of thousands of homicides and suicides each year. Researchers at Boston University say that over the course of an American’s lifetime, the likelihood of knowing someone killed or injured by gunfire is nearly 100 percent. The burden comes atop an acute sense of emotional exhaustion after a years-long period marked by a deadly pandemic, climate-related disasters and a belated racial reckoning, said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine who studies trauma.
When Meghan Alessi of Louisville was 20, she was at a premiere of the movie “The Dark Knight Rises” the same day a shooter opened fire at a showing of the film in Aurora, Colo., killing 12. She became fixated on the coverage, grieving over the victims, learning about their families and trying to find ways to protect herself. More recently, she has tuned out the coverage of shootings. It’s a form of self-preservation, she said. The prevalence of such incidents “just leads you to become numb to it,” said Alessi, 30. “It’s such a normal thing at this point that everyone moves on, whether you’re ready to or not.” Psychologists who study how people respond to tragedies say that feeling powerless can lead to emotional numbness. “If you pay attention and you’re upset and you feel you can’t do anything about it, well, it makes sense to turn it off,” said Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. “Otherwise, you’re in a constant state of agitation and anger.” Slovic says the larger the number of victims, the harder it is for people to care. He calls it the “deadly arithmetic of compassion.” Prof. Jocelyn R. Smith Lee of the University of North Carolina Greensboro, who studies gun violence and racial trauma, said the nation is now “wrestling with things that communities of color have been tasked with navigating for centuries.” “If gun violence is a threat to your daily life, there is no place you go that you’re not taking stock of safety,” Smith Lee said. The U.S. is now forced to weigh risks that are familiar to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by fatal shootings, she said.