How Living With Gun Violence Impacts Your Long-Term Health

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Verywell Health / Zoe Hansen

Key Takeaways

  • With gun violence at an all-time high in the U.S., many are living in fear of losing their life or a loved one to a mass shooting.
  • Being in constant fight-or-flight mode means our brains are continuously on the lookout for danger.
  • Whether or not you’ve been personally impacted by gun violence, chronic stress can lead to significant mental and physical health problems if left unchecked.

Gun violence in the United States has been on the rise in recent years. More people than ever are being touched by the grief, loss, and heartbreak that come with surviving or losing a loved one to a mass shooting.

Even those who haven’t witnessed gun violence are constantly exposed to the horrific stories, photos, and videos that emerge in the wake of mass shootings. These shootings are recurring on a daily basis, leaving many in fear and anxiety.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been at least 281 mass shootings so far in 2022, resulting in 1,190 injuries and 396 deaths. Experts say living in this reality is having detrimental health effects, both mental and physical, on countless people.

“Even if you haven’t been directly affected by a gun accident or violent crime, just hearing about it can cause intense feelings like fear, anger, or helplessness,” Sarah Gupta, MD, a psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety and depression and works as a medical writer at GoodRx, told Verywell.

Constantly worrying about the safety of our loved ones can also have a significant impact on mental and physical wellbeing, Gupta said.

How Gun-Related Trauma Harms Physical and Mental Health

Experiencing gun violence-related trauma fractures the lens through which we see the world, according to Gerard Lawson, PhD, LPC, NCC, a professor in the counselor education program at Virginia Tech. It raises questions about whether we are truly safe and whether there are going to be further acts of violence.

It is well-established that human beings have a hierarchy of needs, he said, and one of the foundations of this hierarchy is safety and security. If this basic need is not satisfied, he said individuals will struggle to fulfill their psychological and self-fulfillment needs, leading to challenges with relationships, self-esteem, self-actualization, and more.

“Our brains were wired to identify threats to our safety or well-being,” Lawson said. “However, that process was designed to identify a nearby saber-toothed tiger, so we could prepare to either fight or flee, and once that danger had passed we would go back to a steady state. That system of vigilance and alert was never designed for us to be under continual strain, as we often find ourselves today.”

Perpetually being in such a state means our brains are continuously on the lookout 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 more.

Chronic stress is also extremely hard on the body, and it can lead to physical ailments such as heart disease and high blood pressure, according to Gupta.

Lawson said both survivors of gun violence and family members of victims often experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including but not limited to intense fear, avoidance, self-destructive behaviors, overwhelming guilt or shame, and panic attacks.

How Children Are Affected

Just as the impacts of experiencing or being exposed to gun violence can be extremely harmful for adults, they can be even more damaging to children.

Children are extremely sensitive to their surroundings, said Aude Henin, PhD, a child psychologist and co-director of the Mass General Hospital Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program.

“There is significant evidence that children can experience vicarious traumatization even if they have never directly experienced gun violence,” Henin told Verywell. “Children are sensitive to nonverbal signals of potential danger and may pick up on adults’ distress and anxiety around recent mass shooting events.”

Having a sense of safety is critical for the physical, psychological, and social development of children, she said, and the lack of perceived safety can make it difficult for children to focus on other important developmental tasks, such as friendships or schoolwork.

Like adults, children may also experience prolonged stress and chronic sympathetic nervous system arousal, which controls our fight-flight-freeze responses. This system evolved to address brief, intermittent stressors, Henin said, and the risks for mental and physical health problems increase when it is constantly triggered. 

“Children can experience anxiety and panic attacks, problems with sleep, and physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches,” she said. “Some children can be irritable and more aggressive. Others may withdraw and feel numb or disconnected.”

They may also have a sense of helplessness or hopelessness about the future, she added.

Over time, just like for adults, chronic stressors such as exposure to gun violence can lead to psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, PTSD and substance abuse, as well as the same serious medical problems as adults.

How to Cope With Grief and Anger

Whether you’ve been personally touched by gun violence or you’ve heard about it happening to others, Gupta said it’s important to acknowledge your feelings and remember that it’s entirely normal to feel grief, anger, sadness, or frustration.

“It’s natural to have an emotional response to violence, and acknowledging these feelings can help you seek out support,” she said.

Lawson added that it’s important to monitor whether these reactions are beginning to interfere with important activities of daily life, or if they’ve gone on longer than you’re comfortable with.

If that’s the case, Lawson strongly encourages limiting exposure to news coverage of the violence. While he said it’s important to know the victims’ names, see their faces, and hear their stories, managing exposure to the details of mass violence can help avoid being overwhelmed.

“Reading about the events on reputable news sites, as opposed to social media, is one aspect,” he said. “Social media has no filter, no journalistic ethics, and no editor making decisions about what is appropriate for the public to see and read.”

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

When you do take a break from the news, Lawson recommends doing something that will engage a different part of your brain, such as going outside to exercise or work in the garden. Exercise in particular is a helpful way to combat trauma because when you move your body, it helps to work through some of the tension that has been created by staying in that perpetual state of fight-or-flight, he said.

Lawson also suggests immersing yourself in hobbies or activities that you enjoy, such as reading, watching entertaining television, listening to music, or losing yourself in a sporting event.

“Channeling your feelings into activism can also 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’re having symptoms that are interrupting your daily life.”

What This Means For You

It’s important to understand that emotional responses to violence and tragedy are normal, but these responses can cause health issues if they go ignored for long periods of time and begin to interfere with daily life. Taking a break from the news, doing activities that make you feel good, and seeking professional support can all help combat the impacts of living with the stress of gun violence.

1 Source
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  1. Tawakol A, Ishai A, Takx RA, et al. Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events: a longitudinal and cohort study. Lancet. 2017;389(10071):834-845. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31714-7

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.