Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Mass Violence Fatigue: What's Normal and What's Not?

What happens when we become desensitized to violence and trauma?

Key points

  • Our reactions to tragic events may change over time.
  • The increasing number of mass attacks can create feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.
  • As the number of tragic incidents increases, we may experience desensitization.

No matter where you go, a big city or a small town, there seems to be a growing risk of mass violence. Places once considered sanctuaries – churches and schools – have become targets with easy access to captive and vulnerable populations. These places make it easy for a lone person to create chaos and cause mass carnage in a matter of minutes. As has been witnessed in Texas, a crowd of armed law enforcement officers cannot efficiently stop the attacker before lives are lost.

When these gut-wrenching and sickening attacks were less frequent, the news of one happening was galvanizing. We felt the pain of the victims and the ones who mourned their deaths. These massacres would stop us in our tracks, and we’d feel gut punched and wonder how it could happen in such a place as our country. We felt something strong and shared horror and grief with others.

And Then the Shock Wears Off

Unfortunately, as the number of these violent attacks on innocent and unsuspecting people grew in frequency, many of us have reached a point where we are no longer “shocked” by these tragic events.

The pandemic and the months of lockdown left many of us emotionally and psychologically exhausted and numb. The collective free-floating anxiety we felt as scientists rushed to find a way to prevent and treat COVID wore us down. Loss of social support, loss of connection, and generalized anxiety related to a fear of illness and death have now been followed up by a seemingly exponentially growing number of mass shootings. This has only increased our level of desensitization.

It's Normal, But.

Desensitization is a totally normal and necessary reaction to traumatic incidents. It’s how we’re able to keep moving through our normal daily routines. Our brains are doing what they can to keep us on track and doing the things we need to do to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and a fire in the hearth.

When we fall off our bikes or cut our fingers in the kitchen, our brain immediately rushes endorphins into our system to numb the physical pain the accident caused. When we suffer an emotional injury or exposure to traumatic events, our brains focus on helping us numb ourselves to the pain so that we can continue moving through the day and not fall down in a heap of pain.

However, we can’t allow the numbness to just hover over us and thicken. Eventually, the numbness will fall away or be ripped away if we lose someone we know and care about to random violence. If we’ve not dealt with or made meaning of prior tragedies, the devastation we experience may be overwhelming and paralyzing.

So What Do We Do Now?

We need to give ourselves space and time to allow our minds to process the traumatic event and let ourselves experience the pain safely. Talking about traumatic events with people we feel safe with, whether friends, families, a support group, or a counselor, allows us to make sense of the event and make meaning of what happened and what it means for us. We need to allow it to become a part of our story so that we can maintain control rather than allowing it to become our story – which gives it more power than is likely good for us.

Sadly, we also experience learned helplessness as shooting after shooting happens. We don’t see members of law enforcement able to stem the tide of violence. We don’t see our government coming together to make significant strides in stopping the violence. So we begin to feel powerless ourselves – as if absolutely nothing can be done to end or even minimize the mass violence in our country.

However, the steps we can take that may help us re-set and re-calibrate include the following:

  • Limit media exposure to violence: Walk away from further re-hashing of the event on TV, and avoid entertainment media that features violence
  • Build, maintain, and prioritize meaningful relationships: Social support is key to our optimal survival.
  • Seek professional help to process your emotions if needed.

When tragedy strikes, everyone has their own unique reaction or response. Recognize that your behavior and response are actually “normal reactions to an abnormal situation.” Once you recognize your triggers and “go-to reactions,” you’ll know when to connect with the people you care about and who care about you. If your reactions shift significantly in magnitude or form, consider reaching out to a professional.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today