It took only 23 days for the U.S. to witness its 11th school shooting of the year, during which a Marshall County High School student killed two of his classmates and wounded more than a dozen others. The Jan. 23 assault, in Benton, Kentucky, was the second school shooting of the week. It was only a Tuesday.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the recent frequency of such horrors, the story was somewhat lost in a news cycle dominated by Oscar nominations, the end of the government shutdown, and the impending sentencing of Larry Nassar. While the town of Benton was undoubtedly rocked by the incident, the rest of the country’s focus was largely elsewhere. “We have absolutely become numb to these kinds of shootings, and I think that will continue,” former senior FBI official Katherine Schweit told the New York Times in the wake of the shooting.
That numbness undoubtedly has an impact on policy, politics and news coverage of shootings. But on an individual level, experts say, it’s not always apathy — it’s a hardwired protective instinct, at least to a degree.
“Because these things are so overwhelming, our central nervous system basically shuts down past a point,” says Dr. Bruce Harry, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and forensic psychiatry at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. “The things that generally overwhelm the person emotionally or neurologically are events that we’re not accustomed to dealing with: severe automobile accidents, plane crashes, fires, the death of someone close to you, or witnessing the death of anyone. These are not things we’re hardwired to endure.”
When people are forced to confront these events, Harry says, the brain may try to shield them from potentially damaging trauma by providing emotional and cognitive distance. The mechanism by which this occurs isn’t well understood, Harry says. But he suspects it has to do with the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing external stimuli and emotions. Exposure to traumatic stress has also been shown to cause lasting changes in brain structure.
“It’s the brain’s way of trying to keep you healthy,” Harry says. “Unfortunately, it can get to a point where it numbs you to other experiences around you.” Some evidence has shown, for example, that exposure to violent media can make people less receptive to the pain and suffering of others in real life.
Whether people are becoming numb to mass violence at a societal level is a matter of debate.
Jack Levin, a sociologist, criminologist and the co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, argues we’re not ignoring violent incidents. Rather, our collective fear of them is at an all-time high — a theory backed by American Psychological Association research. “We are seeing an epidemic of epidemic-thinking about violence,” Levin says, even though “mass killings, including those at schools and colleges, have remained very constant.” (However, that depends on how you measure them.)
But Jeff Temple, a professor and psychologist in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, says that steady exposure to violent news coverage and other media is likely contributing to mass desensitization, simply because it becomes so routine. What was shocking five or 10 years ago is now ordinary.
“Novelty in something is important in terms of us paying attention to it,” Temple says. “That’s why Sandy Hook was so impactful — because it was a new type of violence, in the sense that it was elementary school children.” When people are forced to reckon with 11 school shootings in 23 days, each event, though singular in its tragedy, may lose its shock value for people who aren’t directly affected.
On a personal level, it’s not inherently good or bad to feel numb in the wake of a tragedy, Temple says. “However someone feels after a disaster or a tragedy is okay, and they shouldn’t beat themselves up, however they feel.” But if your response to an emotional event causes you persistent anxiety — whether you’re worried that you’re reacting too strongly, or not strongly enough — he says that may be an indication that you should speak with a mental health professional. Temple also suggests taking the occasional break from the world’s news to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
“I would strongly suggest, as a psychologist, giving yourself vacations from the news and social media,” Temple says. “Whether that’s a day a week, a week a month — just something to escape that daily stress.”