‘This Is the Price We Pay to Live in This Kind of Society’

Seeing news of mass shooting after mass shooting can produce both a stress response and a cynical sense that nothing will change.

An illustration of a brain scan, with the outline of a gun visible in the brain
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

The sites of mass shootings have become instantly recognizable markers of tragedy in the geography of recent American history: There’s Columbine, Parkland, Aurora, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech, among many others. And now there’s the Tops market in Buffalo, and Uvalde.

Each of these events has its own particulars—and many shootings, like the (at least) 14 over Memorial Day weekend, get scant individual attention—but together they form a gutting pattern. Every successive update, every push notification and TV news alert, feels entirely preventable yet sadly inevitable. Being exposed to news of shooting after shooting, with no apparent sign that anything will change, can produce a pair of dispiriting psychological outcomes: Each additional event seems to come with a more intense stress response, while at the same time leaving people feeling even more helpless about the prospect of ending this grim cycle.

A horrific news event is a tragedy for those it directly affects, but simply reading and watching coverage of it is associated with an uptick in symptoms of acute stress, such as intrusive thoughts about the event and avoiding reminders of it. For instance, one study published in 2014 found that the more coverage people saw of the Boston Marathon bombings, the more such symptoms they experienced. Dana Rose Garfin, an adjunct professor of nursing and public health at UC Irvine and a co-author of the study, told me that some news consumers exhibited more symptoms than even those who were present at the Boston Marathon or knew someone who was, suggesting the power of being exposed repeatedly to the news.

Garfin and her research partners have also studied the effects of reading and watching coverage of several tragic news events over time, and found that, on average, the stress symptoms are more likely to occur after multiple events. Some people may get desensitized to the stream of bad news, but the general trend, according to Alison Holman, Garfin’s co-author and UC Irvine colleague, is of “sensitization” rather than “habituation.” It does not help, Garfin and Holman pointed out to me, that the news of recent shootings has arrived against a backdrop of already stressful news about the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and other crises.

Another bleak dimension of news about shootings is that no one seems to be able to do anything to prevent more of them from happening in the United States. Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, told me that this dynamic might bring about something like learned helplessness, the psychological term for when people come to believe that their actions don’t matter, because they feel that the outcomes they face are chaotic and inescapable. In the context of news about shootings, McAdams said that this reaction could lead to feelings of alienation, disengagement, and cynicism, as well as a reduced sense of belonging in American society.

One helpful label for this slew of negative emotions is “headline stress disorder,” a phrase coined by Steven Stosny, a retired clinical psychologist in Maryland. It isn’t a disorder in an official sense, but Stosny told me that he found the concept useful in describing the pattern he noticed in some of his clients in the run-up to the 2016 election, when people who were stressed out by political news seemed to be extra irritable with their loved ones.

The headline stress of shootings, Stosny said, can prompt a feeling of powerlessness, which he says can manifest in that same irritability with those you’re closest with. And yet at the same time, the relentlessness of the news can lead to “compassion fatigue,” in which a person’s emotional bandwidth is drained. According to Stosny, people in this state struggle to feel sufficient compassion even when they know it’s warranted, and can feel guilty as a result.

If the stress of hearing about shootings (or anything else) is affecting your job or social life, experts I spoke with recommended reducing your exposure to the news. But if you can bear the negative emotions, it would be wise to listen to them, as unpleasant as they are. “Sometimes with mental health, it’s like, ‘We want no anxiety, no stress,’” Garfin said. “But some sort of elevated psychological response can be adaptive and can potentially inspire change.” (Stosny suggested that one way to combat feelings of powerlessness is to channel your reaction toward efforts to reduce gun violence, such as donating to an advocacy group or joining a rally.)

When I spoke with McAdams last week, I asked him how people might try to cope with the news of another horrendous shooting. “I do not see coping as the ultimate goal—I see engagement [as the goal]. For me, this is the price we all pay to live in this kind of society,” he said. “I’m not going to tune out all these things so that I can try to salvage some peace and happiness. I feel that it’s kind of my responsibility at this point to feel terrible.”