How living with gun violence affects long-term health

To take the keys

  • With the highest number of gun violence in the U.S., many live in fear of losing a life or a loved one as a result of 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 are personally affected by gun violence, chronic stress can lead to serious mental and physical health problems without control.

Gun violence has increased in the United States in recent years. More people than ever are being touched by the grief, loss and grief that comes with the survival or loss of a loved one in a mass shooting.

Even those who have not witnessed gun violence are constantly exposed to the horrific stories, photos, and videos that result from mass shootings. These shootings are repeated every day, leaving many with fear and anxiety.

According to the Arms Violence Archive, there have been at least 281 mass shootings in 2022, resulting in 1,190 injuries and 396 deaths. Experts say that living in this reality can have a detrimental effect on health, both mentally and physically, for many people.

“Even if you are not directly affected by a gun accident or violent crime, hearing about it can lead to intense feelings such as fear, anger, or helplessness,” said Sarah Gupta, MD, a psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety and depression. As a medical writer at GoodRx, he told Verywell.

Constant concern for the safety of our loved ones can also have a profound effect on mental and physical well-being, Gupta said.

How weapon-related trauma harms physical and mental health

Suffering gun-related trauma breaks the lens we see in the world, according to Gerard Lawson, PhD, LPC, NCC, professor of the Virginia Tech Advisory Education Program. He questions whether we are really safe and whether there will be more acts of violence.

It is well established that man has a hierarchy of needs, he said, and that one of the foundations of that hierarchy is security and safety. He said that if this basic need is not met, individuals will make an effort to meet their psychological needs and self-realization needs, and relationships, self-esteem, self-realization, and so on.

“Our brains were wired to identify threats to our safety or well-being,” Lawson said. “However, this process was designed to identify a nearby saber-toothed tiger so that it could be prepared to fight or flee, and once that danger was over we would return to a stable state. This surveillance and alert system was never designed to be in constant tension, as we often find it today. ”

Being in such a constant situation 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 disturbances, distractions at work or school, intrusive thoughts, and so on.

Chronic stress is also very severe for the body and can lead to physical ailments such as heart disease. and hypertension, according to Gupta.

Lawson said survivors of gun violence and relatives of victims often have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including intense fear, avoidance, self-destructive behavior, including guilt or extreme embarrassment, and panic attacks.

How they affect children

Just as the effects of gun violence or harassment can be very detrimental to adults, it can be even more damaging to children.

Children are very sensitive to their environment, said Aude Henin, a doctor, child psychologist and director of the Mass General Hospital Children’s Cognitive Therapy-Behavior Program.

“There is significant evidence that children can suffer from vicarious trauma, even if they have never been directly exposed to gun violence,” Henin told Verywell. “Children are sensitive to the unspoken signs of potential danger and may experience adult distress and anxiety about the events of the recent mass shootings.”

Having a sense of security is critical to a child’s physical, psychological, and social development, he said, and perceived lack of security can make it difficult for children to focus on other important developmental tasks, such as friendship or schoolwork.

Like adults, children can experience prolonged stress and a chronic sympathetic nervous system that controls our fight-flight-freeze responses. This system has evolved to cope with short, ongoing stresses, Henin said, and the risks to mental and physical health problems increase when they are constantly launched.

“Children may have physical symptoms such as anxiety and panic attacks, sleep problems, and headaches or stomach aches,” she said. “Some kids can be more angry and aggressive. Others may feel withdrawn and dropped or disconnected. ”

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

Over time, chronic stresses, such as being exposed to adult violence, can lead to psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance abuse, as well as serious adult medical problems.

How to deal with grief and anger

Whether or not you have been personally affected by gun violence, Gupta said it is important to acknowledge your feelings and remember that it is perfectly normal to feel pain, anger, sadness, or frustration.

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

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

If this is the case, Lawson strongly recommends limiting exposure to news of violence. Although he said it is important to know the names of the victims, see their faces and listen to their stories, it can help to not be overwhelmed by the details of the massive violence.

“Reading about events on reputable news sites, unlike on social media, is a party,” he said. “Social media has no filtering, no journalistic ethics, and no editors make decisions about what is appropriate for viewing and reading by the public.”

Even with reputable media, it’s important to “keep a limit on how long you spend consuming this news,” Lawson added.

When you take a break from the news, Lawson recommends doing something that will take up another part of your brain, such as going outside for exercise or working in the garden. Exercise, in particular, is a helpful way to deal with trauma, because when you move your body, it helps to overcome the tension created by being in this constant state of struggle-or-flight, he said.

Lawson also recommends that you immerse yourself in a hobby or activity that you enjoy, such as reading, watching entertaining TV, listening to music, or getting lost in a sporting event.

“Focusing your feelings on activism will help you regain a sense of control,” Gupta added. “And of course, for many people, therapy or support groups can be valuable, especially if you have symptoms that are disrupting your daily life.”

What does this mean for you?

It is important to understand that emotional responses to violence and tragedy are normal, but these responses can lead to health problems if they are neglected for a long time and begin to interfere with daily life. Taking a break from the news, doing activities that make you feel good, and seeking professional help can help you cope with the effects of living with the stress of gun violence.

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