Coping With The Monsters Among Us

By Willie Johnson | United States

Last Wednesday, seventeen students and teachers were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Last October, it was fifty-eight concert-goers on the Las Vegas Strip. The year before, it was five police officers in Dallas. The list goes on. Much has been said about the motives of the killers, but what about the psychological effect of their actions on those not directly involved?

Each of these and similar tragedies have invoked immeasurable shock and horror among the same average Americans that are the target of such mass murders, and unfortunately, a pattern has begun to develop. Immediately following a mass shooting, seemingly everyone is shocked and eager to find out more about the situation. After a while, a sense of mourning develops and countless posts of ‘thoughts and prayers’ flood social media. Heated political discussions on the cause of the shooting and how it could have been prevented abound soon after. It’s all we can talk about for a time, but inevitably, most of us choose to move on and put the latest murders out of our thoughts and behind us.

These are all temporary physical responses that help us deal with the stark reality of violence that could easily happen to anyone. Psychological responses, however, both explain these outward reactions and give insight into the larger societal effects of frequent mass murders. As any psychologist would tell you, these events are a source of great stress and therefore trigger established coping mechanisms in normally functioning people. It’s a simple cause and effect relationship?we feel frustration over a problem we can’t seem to prevent, respond in one or more ways, and become more resilient with each time we encounter new horrors.

Applying Behavioral theories of stress response is an effective way to analyze trauma on both the group and individual level. Direct coping strategies include confrontation and compromise, (attempting to find solutions and set practical goals to solve a problem), demonstrated by the political conflicts brought on by shootings, as well as withdrawal, (choosing to avoid the issue completely), demonstrated by those who avoid or ignore shootings to protect themselves from their emotional effects. Every argument for gun control or mental health reform is an example of a coping strategy, regardless of intent; efforts to prevent shootings help improve safety, but also indirectly improve the mental health of those in danger.

More extreme responses, unsurprisingly, lead to more extreme effects. When people who are at a higher risk of being involved in an active-shooter situation (such as high school students) let their anxiety go unchecked, they involuntarily employ defense mechanisms. These self-deceptive stress relief techniques are an indirect form of coping, and include denial (forcing oneself to believe the source of stress doesn’t really exist), demonstrated by those who refuse to accept the reality of mass shootings, rationalization (trying to justify the source of stress), demonstrated by those who make excuses for them, and most importantly, humor; everything about making light of murder seems wrong, but internet jokes about infamous crimes often lessen their impact, especially to young people receptive to dark comedy. 

Getting emotional about mass shootings isn’t an entirely bad thing. These terrible crimes deserve to be discussed and prevented, but their psychological effects shouldn’t go unnoticed. There are certainly good and bad ways to respond to tragedy, and a healthy sense of self-awareness is beneficial no matter the situation. Next time you see a controversial headline or heated debate on the subject, remember the psychological basis for them. Looking at the way people respond to tragedy is an essential part of analyzing culture and preparing for future scenarios, good and bad.