Numb to the News: How We Become Desensitized in Wake of Tragic Events
The news of the shooting at Oxford High School, a suburb of Detroit, Mi. flashed across headlines last month. Ethan Crumble, a 15-year-old sophomore had taken a gun to school and fired several rounds before being taken into custody by police. By then, he had already killed 3 students and injured 7 others. A fourth student would later die from injuries in the hospital. This was one of 48 U.S. school shootings that happened in 2021 and by now the cycle plays out like a well-rehearsed choreography. There is a violent attack. The news echoes into our cars and living rooms as we start the day. Headlines churn from newsrooms to our vibrating phones and we wonder what could have caused such a tragedy. There are vigils, press briefings and a renewed push for gun control. There is a pattern. I remember the radio quietly spilling the details of the event into my room the morning after the shooting as I continued dressing mindlessly. The events of the day felt no more startling than the list of reported COVID-19 deaths that came right after. But, why does it feel so normal?
How we become numb
In disaster psychology, there is a wealth of research on desensitization. Back in the 1970s, early work on desensitization to media by researchers such as Victor B. Cline and Margaret H. Thomas, involving exposure to mild forms of violence on television for short periods of time showed that there was less physiological reactivity among participants who watched more violent clips than those who only viewed small amounts. This desensitization was the same in both children and adults.
Becoming numb to death or persistent threats is a survival mechanism that allows us to continue to function amidst adversity. Our brains adapt as we move through the initial response of shock that comes with tragedy and is often how we connect to the emotional strength to endure them. Events that might have once elicited anxiousness or fear, over time provoke less of a response as we become more accustomed to them. A video of students stumbling out of schools and rushing towards windows to escape an active shooter is not one that any of us would consider normal; however, as Cai Kellier, a Criminology student at the University of Windsor, highlights that they become normal because “it feels like it happens all the time.” The repeated images may not become any easier to see, but they may influence the way we learn to process them.
UWindsor student, Jenevieve Scobbie, also describes that while informative, the near-constant news may do more harm than good.
“It prevents people from truly processing events because there is always new news coming in. A lot of the news these days is quite negative and can be hard on people’s emotions. I know some people who have a hard time watching the news because of this. It can be one problem to the next problem with no processing time which can create anxiety for the individual.”
For others like Jon Pangilinan, a third-year student at the University, knowing things are bound to happen again means those images serve as a “poignant reminder of the evil in this world.” Rather than feeling surprised, Jon explained that his reaction now is simply to sigh with disappointment and shake his head.
Understanding our role and response
Feeling the need to step away is a natural response, however, it is equally important to finding empathy and process death without becoming fearful or detached. So how does one create a healthy balance to counteract the anxiety or numbness tragic events can elicit?
First, it is important to extend empathy to yourself. Simply acknowledging that an event is challenging, or unsettling can be a good way to create a space for ourselves to grieve and reflect on the loss. Doing that with others can also offer a sense of community.
“I talk to my family, which is my support system,” Scobbie explains. “They give me a source of comfort. I am very fortunate to have a close family and support system in my life because many people do not have someone to talk to. For a little while, after I found out [about the shooting], I was a little bit anxious but what also tends to help me in prayer. I actually prayed for the families as I have really tapped into my faith the last few years, and I know just how important the power of prayer is.”
Tapping into different practices like journaling, mindfulness, prayer or even simply pausing during the day to say what you’re thankful for can help us respectfully engage with the world in a way that is measured by understanding and love rather than fear and apathy.
While being a mindful and informed student, the news we take in doesn’t have to undermine our emotional wellbeing nor place pressure on us to constantly find answers or fix the problem. Tragic events may be out of our control, but instead of contributing to a feeling of hopelessness, the idea that we can control our response may be a freeing thought.