Coping With The Impact of Random Violence

Why These Tragedies Affect Us All So Strongly--And How You Can Cope

Candle of rememberance
Random violence affects us all deeply for many reasons. Creative RM/Michael Marquand/Getty Images

Random violence is becoming increasingly common; however, each time a public shooting or other form of unforeseeable violence occurs and dominates the news, the emotional impact is devastating.  The toll that these events exact on those involved is unimaginable, but the rest of the world, those of us who look helplessly on and try to make sense of the senseless, are also affected.  When tragedies like random violence or school shootings occur, it affects many of us very deeply for several reasons:


It is heartbreaking to hear about innocent victims being terrorized. Even when we do not know the victims, we can't help but identify with them, and imagine what they must have felt. We tend to mourn their loss, and our hearts go out to their families. First and foremost, these events are breathtakingly sad, and, regardless of if we knew them, we feel that loss.

Human Cause

According to research, traumatic events that are intentionally caused by a person (rather than a random act of nature, for example) are the most difficult to recover from (followed by those unintentionally caused by a person).  This makes sense, as it is more horrifying that one person could intentionally cause such harm to another person or a group of strangers; it's scary to think of the world containing such people.

Random Violence

The randomness of events like school shootings causes us all to fear for our children and for ourselves, as there is nothing to distinguish the victims from anyone else.

Often with violence, we look for things that would set us apart from the victims so that we can still feel safe and less at-risk (“I never sleep with my windows open like that rape victim did, so that couldn’t as easily happen to me”). With such random shootings, we must realize that we, too, would be vulnerable in such a situation.

No Warning

In most of life’s dangerous situations, there are at least one or two warning signs of impending danger, and we use these to help us avoid being vulnerable. Storm clouds gather, animals bare their fangs, fights escalate. However, in instances like school shootings, where students were simply going to class as they did every day, or with mall or church shootings, where victims were merely going about their daily lives, there was no warning, which makes us all realize that something like this could happen to us with no warning as well.

So in situations like these, we are more likely to put ourselves in the place of the victims, which can cause us all to become more traumatized by these events. We hear about the quick thinkers who saved themselves and other students in the Virginia Tech shootings, for example, and of heroes who gave their lives to protect others, and we wonder how we would react in such a situation. We wonder what could have been done to prevent this so we can know how to feel safer.

These reactions are helpful to us and to society in a way, so before we push away feelings of anxiety and distress over the shootings, we should allow them to do what they’re meant to do: push us to action.

Important discussions are taking place about what we as a society can do to take action and try to prevent tragic events like these from occurring again. But on an individual level, what actions can be taken?

Safety Plans

The most obvious next step is for us all to look for ways that safety can be increased and human casualties can be minimized or eliminated in the future, if such a tragedy were to occur again. Following past school shootings, changes have been made such as increases in campus security, zero-tolerance policies, and increased vigilance. Some groups like have come into action and have reportedly stopped potential school shooters following such tragedies.

Other potential shooters have been turned in by vigilant classmates. Recent would-be shooters in other venues have been stopped ahead of time as well. Possible next steps could include the adoption of a policy where all students on a campus (middle school level through college) could receive a warning text message in the event of a shooting on a campus, and a clear policy could be publicized to keep students safer in such an event. In tragedies like school shootings, some safety measures were already in place, and no foreseeable amount of additional safety measures could probably have prevented the tragedy (indeed, the quick arrival of first responders likely shortened the duration of the attack and saved lives), but making any plans that can cut down on loss in any situation is helpful.

Personal Preparedness

As individuals, we can also become more safety-oriented. We can have clear plans in our minds of what to do in an emergency situation. We can become more trusting of our intuition and listen to the inner voice that warns us of potentially dangerous people. (This may or may not help in a school shooting situation, but it can keep us safer in many other potentially dangerous scenarios.)  

Reaching Out

Those who would do something as senseless and violent as what these shooters have done are clearly disturbed, emotionally unstable, or mentally ill. They tend to be isolated loners who feel severely angry and hopeless, and have dehumanized others in their minds. While no amount of reaching out may have helped these individuals, if anything constructive can come from such tragedy, perhaps it’s a reminder of the importance of human connection. Whether it inspires someone to reach out to an acquaintance who may be isolated and lonely, or it sparks someone who’s at the end of their rope to seek help or support, a greater sense of connection among people could result from such a tragedy.

So, aside from actions that can be inspired by tragic events, the resulting painful emotions must be processed and dealt with. As I alluded above, those of us who weren’t directly touched by these types of events may be surprised by how strongly affected we are by them, and still need to process what we’re feeling.

Traumatic events like random shootings can affect us all deeply—even if we weren’t directly involved! Here are some important coping techniques for those involved in a traumatic event, and for those who weren’t directly involved, but are still emotionally impacted:

Control What You Can

Tragedies like this one make us feel helpless by pointing out how we and our loved ones can be vulnerable even in seemingly safe, everyday situations.

It’s jarring to be reminded that we could be in danger at any time. One way we can feel safer is to look at all the ways we can keep ourselves safer (many of which are mentioned earlier): avoiding obviously dangerous situations, having a safety plan for numerous scenarios, etc.

Talk About Your Feelings

Having a strong, supportive network is important for anyone, but after a traumatic event, it’s a must. It’s important to process strong feelings you may have, and most of us do that more easily by talking things out with someone we trust—this can be a good friend, a partner, or a therapist. Talking things out often helps because, in addition to adding social support, it helps us process what’s going on inside. Even if the person we’re talking to has no solutions, the act of articulating what we’re feeling, and examining our feelings in the context of a conversation, makes it easier for us to move past these feelings.

Begin Journaling

Research has shown that journaling has many positive effects on health and wellbeing. The most effective form of journaling involves writing about one’s feelings, and also brainstorming solutions to troubling situations. Keeping this in mind, journaling can be a helpful tool for dealing with distress, especially for people who don’t have a supportive network in place or aren’t as comfortable talking to others about their feelings.

Find Help

For those more deeply affected by tragic events, it’s often a good idea to talk to a therapist, at least for a few sessions. There are also support groups for people who want to connect with others who are dealing with similar issues, and a therapist may be able to put you in contact with one. These steps aren’t necessary for all circumstances, but very helpful for those experiencing a more severe reaction to trauma. If you start having intrusive thoughts about a trauma, become preoccupied with feelings of anxiety, experience nightmares related to the event, or if you find that your reactions to a traumatic event are interfering with your normal functioning, it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist.

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