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Here's Why You Can Shut Out the Shock of Mass Shootings

Here's Why You Can Shut Out the Shock of Mass Shootings
From TIME - January 24, 2018

It took only 23 days for the U.S. to witness its 11th school shooting of the year, during which a Marshall County High School student killed two of his classmates and wounded more than a dozen others. The Jan. 23 assault, in Benton, Kentucky, was the second school shooting of the week. It was only a Tuesday.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the recent frequency of such horrors, the story was somewhat lost in a news cycle dominated by Oscar nominations, the end of the government shutdown, and the impending sentencing of Larry Nassar. While the town of Benton was undoubtedly rocked by the incident, the rest of the countrys focus was largely elsewhere. We have absolutely become numb to these kinds of shootings, and I think that will continue, former senior FBI official Katherine Schweit told the New York Times in the wake of the shooting.

That numbness undoubtedly has an impact on policy, politics and news coverage of shootings. But on an individual level, experts say, its not always apathyits a hardwired protective instinct, at least to a degree.

Because these things are so overwhelming, our central nervous system basically shuts down past a point, says Dr. Bruce Harry, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and forensic psychiatry at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. The things that generally overwhelm the person emotionally or neurologically are events that were not accustomed to dealing with: severe automobile accidents, plane crashes, fires, the death of someone close to you, or witnessing the death of anyone. These are not things were hardwired to endure.

When people are forced to confront these events, Harry says, the brain may try to shield them from potentially damaging trauma by providing emotional and cognitive distance. The mechanism by which this occurs isnt well understood, Harry says. But he suspects it has to do with the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing external stimuli and emotions. Exposure to traumatic stress has also been shown to cause lasting changes in brain structure.

Its the brains way of trying to keep you healthy, Harry says. Unfortunately, it can get to a point where it numbs you to other experiences around you. Some evidence has shown, for example, that exposure to violent media can make people less receptive to the pain and suffering of others in real life.

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