Experiencing PTSD After Shootings, Even If You Weren’t There, is Normal

Try to take repeated breaks from the news coverage and social media.

It’s easy to get consumed by the news when a tragic event, like a shooting, occurs.

You turn on the TV, a recap of the shooting is there. Switch on the radio, it’s there, too. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — it’s everywhere, all around us.

On top of that, the news tends to replay traumatic incidents ad nauseam — over and over again, all day, for multiple days in a row.

As you can imagine, watching a horrific event on repeat can start to take a toll on your mental health.

“Now more than ever before, where someone may have been isolated from a traumatic incident, we’re now inundated with images, recorded videos that are replayed, headlines, news stories — not just on our television any longer but in the palms of our hands, on our cell phones, on our social media accounts,” said Alexa Mieses, a family physician at Duke Family Medicine Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Trauma is a very complicated and multi-layered issue, she added, and what one person deems traumatic could be completely different from what another person does.

Consequently, some people may experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — the psychiatric disorder that can occur after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event — even if they weren’t at or directly involved with a shooting or other traumatic event.

“The combination of those two things: first being everyone has a different response to trauma and not everyone is going to find the same event traumatic, and how quickly prospective traumatic events can spread really sets up a perfect storm for someone to have PTSD symptoms,” Mieses said.

[ICYMI: Why Your Brain Craves Bad News]

Why it happens

PTSD from indirect exposure is not so different from the PTSD someone would experience from direct exposure.

Illustration of couple watching breaking news. PTSD After Shootings pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
If you’re consuming traumatizing media, remind yourself that you aren’t in any danger — even if it feels like you are.

“Most of us assume in order to develop PTSD, the traumatic event has to happen to us directly,” said Maryann Mathai, a licensed clinical counselor who specializes in trauma-focused therapy. “Neuroscience has shown this is not the case. Our bodies are wired to respond to danger in the same way regardless of where the threat comes from.”

Regardless of whether you’re directly facing the danger or observing it through a screen, the emotional part of the brain — called the amygdala — triggers the “fight or flight” response to help regulate the threat.

Typically, once the danger is gone, the body will begin to relax. However, with PTSD, the body’s threat system stays activated, ready to take on danger at any time.

The continuous 24/7 coverage of mass shootings could potentially overwhelm some people’s threat systems and eventually cause them to develop PTSD, Mathai said.

Symptoms vary from person to person

There’s a range of  PTSD symptoms, and they aren’t the same from person to person.

“You might feel jittery, angry, have trouble sleeping afterward, start to feel numbed out emotionally, feel strong urges to watch it again, or have it preoccupy your thoughts,” said Aimee Daramus, a licensed clinical psychologist with Urban Balance in Chicago.

Some people may re-experience the shooting, via a flashback or nightmare. Others may become hyper-vigilant or start avoiding things that remind them of the traumatic events.

“Just to give you an example, with these shootings, one of the noteworthy shootings that took place in the news many years ago has to do with the movie theater,” Mieses said. “Now, there are some people who may avoid going out in public to a movie because of fear that they have that they’ll be the victim of a shooting.”

One thing remains constant: PTSD symptoms can significantly interfere with someone’s functioning and take a serious toll on their quality of life.

[Read: ‘Not Defined By Trauma’: How 3 Women Cope With PTSD]

Here’s how you can cope

If you’re consuming traumatizing media, remind yourself that you aren’t in any danger — even if it feels like you are.

One of the best ways to prevent indirect PTSD is to tone down the amount of traumatic TV or news you’re taking in. Do something to get your mind and body back into the present moment to remember that you’re safe.

“Watch a light-hearted show, listen to some music, do something that isn’t stressful,”Daramus said. “You’re reminding your brain that life isn’t all about the trauma.”

If you can’t shake the negative feelings, be sure to visit your doctor or therapist.

“If there’s even a question in someone’s mind that they might be struggling with any sort of negative reaction to trauma, it’s always a good idea to speak with your family physician,” Mieses said.

Your doctor gets to know you over time and is typically a good person to debrief with after a traumatic event occurs.

Additionally, they’ll be able to let you know the type of help and resources that are available to help you process it and heal.

When you’re dealing with any sort of stress or trauma-related response, keep your body strong and healthy. When your body is tired or hungry, for example, you’ll be even more vulnerable or susceptible to experiencing an extreme response to stress or trauma.

Get eight hours of sleep a night, drink enough water and eat enough food.

“The better you take care of yourself, the better you’re preparing your body to deal with stressful events,” Mieses said.

Julia Ries

Julia Ries is a writer based in Los Angeles. When she’s not writing, there’s a good chance she’s doing yoga, walking her dog or doing yoga with her dog. Get to know her at www.juliaries.com.