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Feeling numb about recent mass shootings?

Why horrors fail to shock after repeated exposure

CHICAGO --- As we're exposed to more and more news of mass shootings, we may no longer be shocked or even dramatically upset. People may worry they have become callous or insensitive to suffering.

But there are psychological reasons for our muted responses, say Northwestern Medicine psychologists.

The experts:

Sheehan Fisher is an assistant professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Stewart Shankman is chief of psychology at Feinberg.

Why you may be feeing numb

Fisher: “We can have a muted emotional response to horrible events given the frequency of exposure to catastrophic news, because we start to become accustomed to high stress and accept the occurrence of fear-inspiring events, as if it is the new normal.”

Shankman: “The more these things happen, the less shocking they feel. Rather than desensitization, I think this is more like a hopelessness. People feel the government officials and policy makers aren’t working for them to reduce the likelihood of this happening again. They feel the people who should be doing something about this are not. They feel they are going up against a brick wall to try to influence policy.”

Downsides of emotionally adapting to repeated violence

Fisher: “Our body and mind are meant to adjust to onslaughts of negative experiences, so that we feel less distress, but that can lead to us being less reactive in ways that do not match our actual view and concern about an event.

“Exposure to repeated traumatic events can cause us to be numb to future events or normalize them, and can lead to depressive symptoms due to feelings of hopelessness or helplessness. We may come across as cold or unempathetic, which could spill over to our interactions with loved ones and other people in our lives.”

Mental health can be affected

Fisher: “Emotionally adjusting to repeated stressors is adaptive, but if this response is chronic, it could have a significant impact on one's mental health. It is important to not stay in a state where one feels detached or unaffected by negative events that matter to them, because the person may be unaware of the toll the stress is having on their underlying physical and mental well-being.”

Why we can’t become complacent

Fisher: “An individual who becomes overly accustomed to negative events can become complacent in contrast to their true values because emotions can be a key driver for motivation for change and action. This likely will contribute to the perpetuation of negative events. For example, one may feel resigned to the belief that they do not have agency to create change and, therefore, not protest or vote to address a national issue, which leads to no major change.”