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Trauma Due to Surviving a School Shooting

By March 21, 2019June 23rd, 2020Blog


Santa Fe High School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Columbine High School. While we often focus on the victims of mass shootings and other extreme violence, it is the survivors who are left to pick up the pieces.

In the words of Dr. Hampton, a Licensed Psychologist, “Major trauma, like a school shooting where death is involved, usually impacts individuals in one of three ways. One, it is immediately devastating, and symptoms are present from the beginning. Two, the shock of the incident wears off in the weeks and months after the shooting and symptoms begin to emerge. Or three, the person buries the symptoms as best they can, and the symptoms reemerge at a later date in a much more intense and unpredictable way, sometimes years later. Regardless of when the symptoms begin, mental illnesses associated with trauma are usually lifelong.” Worst of all, the children involved are predominantly the ones who must live the rest of their lives with the memories and trauma caused by a school shooting. 

It is estimated by the National Center for PTSD that 28% of people who have witnessed a shooting of any kind develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and approximately one third develop acute stress disorder. 

While school shootings are truly horrific, it is important to not forget the lives of those who were lost. The Washington Post’s article, “The terrible numbers that grow with each mass shooting,” has a complete list of all school shooting incidents and their victims as well as various other statistics regarding both school and mass shootings. 

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is characterized as physical or emotional damage caused by an assault, such as a school shooting. There is no consistent set of symptoms for trauma; trauma affects everyone in a variety of different ways. Just because you do not react like someone else, it does not mean your way of reacting to trauma is incorrect. Additionally, regardless of the cause or type of trauma, it will have a physiological effect on the body. These changes and symptoms include: 

  • Cognitive symptoms: Your ability to process thoughts and make decisions. 
  • Mental symptoms: Your worldview, as well as your understanding and meaning of life, society, and the world, maybe affected. 
  • Emotional symptoms: Emotions and feelings of guilt, fear, hatred, shame, anger, sadness and pain.
  • Social symptoms:  Relationships with spouses, family, and friends can be affected making it difficult to cope with the experienced trauma. 
  • Physical symptoms:  Joints, muscles, digestion, metabolism, sleep, temperature, and immune system can be affected.

Over time, if the trauma persists, specifically for over a month, then the victim may be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can develop after a very demanding, stressful or distressing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience, such as a mass shooting. While not everyone who experiences a mass shooting suffers from PTSD, those who do are by no means weak; PTSD is not a sign of weakness. 

PTSD can be grouped into four categories, including:

  • Avoidance- People with PTSD will avoid people, thoughts and memories, situations, and places that remind them of their trauma. This can lead to feelings of detachment and isolation from friends and family and can even result in the loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed. 
  • Reliving- those with PTSD will relive the ordeal through memories and thoughts that remind them of the trauma they had experienced. This can result in feelings of isolation and detachment from friends and family, as well as a general loss of interest in activities that they used to enjoy. 
  • Increased arousal- symptoms of increased arousal include excessive emotions, difficulty relating to others, such as feeling or showing affection, difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, irritability, increased temper, decrease inability to concentrate and easily startled. There are also some physical symptoms that would fall into this category such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, rapid breathing, nausea, and diarrhea. 
  • Negative thoughts and mood– This would include thoughts and feelings relating to estrangement, blame, and other negative behaviors.  

PTSD, when left untreated, can lead to a variety of other serious symptoms. For example, since PTSD has the capability to make a person unpleasant (typically because of loss of interests and increased temper), people with PTSD may end up feeling isolated and alone. As a result, people may demonstrate symptoms of serious depression, such as suicidal thoughts or actions while in the midst of a PTSD episode. 

Acute Stress Disorder

Acute Stress Disorder is the development of severe anxiety, dissociation and other symptoms that occur within one month after experiencing an extremely traumatic event. Someone with this disorder may experience difficulty concentrating, feel detached from their body, experience the world as unreal or dreamlike, or have increasing difficulty recalling specific details of the event.  There is overlap from this disorder and PTSD; there are many similar, overlapping symptoms. 

Specific acute stress disorder symptoms include: 

  • The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with (e.g., can include learning of) an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.
  • Though not required, the person’s response is likely to involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

Also, either during or following the event, three or more of the following dissociative symptoms will be present: 

  • Derealization
  • Depersonalization
  • Detachment from society or absence of emotional responsiveness
  • Loss of awareness of his or her surroundings 
  • Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma (dissociative amnesia)

For acute stress disorder to be diagnosed, the symptoms above must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning or impairment in the individual’s ability to pursue some necessary task.

Early Intervention and Treatment is Important 

Intervene as soon as possible on behalf of someone suffering from a mass shooting. Uncharacteristic behavior(s) may become increasingly destructive. Over time, buried and suppressed memories become more powerful.

Accelerated Resolution Therapy® (ART) is an innovative, evidence-based therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression, stress, and similar mental health diagnoses. Initially, the therapy was primarily used to help veterans suffering from PTSD. One of the major advantages is the speed at which ART is able to bring relief. Generally, only one to five sessions are needed, not months or years of expensive psychiatric treatment. 

Accelerated Resolution Therapy works by reprogramming the traumatic memories that are preventing a person from enjoying the full life they deserve. The techniques work equally well on anyone suffering from trauma, regardless of the type of trauma experienced. Trauma, at the end of the day, is still trauma.

If you have experienced a mass shooting and suffer from the emotional and psychological pain it has left behind, contact ART International to learn more or to find an ART therapist near you.