How to Engage and Cope With Mass Tragedies

Health & Wellbeing

Stressful events can cause us to detach and disengage, experts say, but there are ways to avoid becoming desensitized.

I was putting my 7-year-old to bed on Tuesday when I checked my phone and saw what had happened in Texas. The rush of horror and anguish I felt was electric, especially because the tragedy occurred just nine days after the shooting at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods, Calif., and 10 days after a racist massacre at a Buffalo supermarket.

But how long are our heartbreak and anger going to last, and will we do anything constructive with those feelings? Mass shootings are becoming more than a daily occurrence in this country. These tragedies seem almost woven into the fabric of our culture. (This was the 27th school shooting this year, according to Education Week’s School Shooting Tracker.)

But we can’t let such dreadful events become so enmeshed in American life that we start to accept them as normal. As the Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said in a pregame news conference on Tuesday: “We can’t get numb to this. We can’t sit here and just read about it and go, ‘Well, let’s have a moment of silence.’”

But how do we continue to engage with the issue, and fight to address it, alongside all the other grave problems we’re facing, including the pandemic, climate change and the baby formula crisis?

There’s a scientific term for the detachment we feel over time in the face of mass tragedy. It’s called psychic numbing, and it’s something that the University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic has been studying since the 1990s. He was inspired to understand it after being shocked by the public’s reaction — or lack thereof — to the genocide happening then in Rwanda. (Incidentally, in 1999, Dr. Slovic also lost a child from an accidental gunshot wound.)

Dr. Slovic’s work has shown that people are more willing to step in and help when tragedies happen to a few people rather than many — or, put another way, that we care less about calamity when more people are harmed compared with when fewer people are. In one study, he found that people were willing to give more money to a charity when they were told it would help one victim, versus when they were told it would help one victim but were also provided statistics on the millions of others in need.

His work has even shown that our propensity to help goes down when we consider two victims, rather than just one. So when we see articles and social media posts citing the tens of thousands of gun deaths per year, we may feel less upset, and less willing to do something about it, than we would if we had engaged with the story of a single victim.

Although this tendency is paradoxical — shouldn’t we care more when more people are hurt? — we respond this way for several reasons. First, when we come across data and numbers, the emotional part of our brain shuts off, Dr. Slovic said — we become more detached from the information, which makes us care about it less.

Second, when we face a momentous problem, we feel that we can’t make a difference even if we try. If guns are killing so many people in the United States, what can one person possibly do to stop it? “If the problem seems large, and our action seems small, then it doesn’t feel as good to help, even when our help can be important,” he said. Over time, this feeling of hopelessness can cause us to start ignoring the problem. “If you don’t have what you feel is effective action to take, then you turn it off, because it’s painful to keep thinking about it,” he said.

To overcome psychic numbing, the first step is to recognize that it’s happening. (When people are made aware of psychological tendencies or biases, they become less susceptible to them.) If you’re reading an article or post about what happened in Uvalde, Texas, and it doesn’t engage you emotionally, remind yourself that you’re probably feeling numb. Then “pause and think about the people — the lives that are affected beneath the surface of the statistics,” Dr. Slovak said.

It may help to spend time reading about one of Uvalde’s victims — who the person was, what she or he looked like. Remember the iconic photo of the Syrian child lying facedown on the Turkish beach that ran in newspapers during the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015? Dr. Slovic’s research has shown that this one photo increased worldwide donations to the Red Cross by more than a factor of 100 — it did far more to incite people to take action than the many data-heavy articles that had run before it.

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Another thing you can do is to try to deliberately pull at your own heartstrings. In a 2022 study, researchers asked about 1,800 people in Sweden to make decisions according to either their gut feelings or their rational brain. They found that those who were told to rely on their feelings were more likely to make choices that helped others. You can do this to yourself, too — before, say, reading an article about gun violence, take a moment to encourage yourself to connect with your feelings.

An additional strategy for staying engaged is to find ways to deliberately remind yourself of how similar the victims are to you or your own loved ones, Dr. Slovic said. As a mother of two kids in elementary school, I immediately thought of my own children when I learned about what happened in Uvalde, which amplified my horror — again, tapping more into my feelings, helping me to connect with the issue.

That said, you don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — stay engaged with difficult issues all of the time. “If you’re grinding your teeth, feeling sad, feeling angry, feeling like you need to disconnect, that doesn’t make you a bad advocate,” said Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “It just makes you human.” You may need to give yourself some space to process your feelings, she said, before re-engaging with the problem.

If you want to keep your momentum going, make a formal commitment, Dr. Slovic said. That could mean making a specific to-do list that you hold yourself to — like, this week, I’ll call my representatives, and next week, I’ll give money to organizations working in this space. Or it could mean signing up to volunteer in support of the cause, as the act of signing up will hold you more accountable.

Dr. Slovic said that joining forces with groups could also help you overcome those pesky feelings of inefficacy. When working with others, you “amplify your effort,” he said, which makes it feel more productive. Plus, engaging with others will keep you focused on the issue and will make it less likely that you’ll slide into psychic numbness. When you surround yourself with people who also deeply care, you’ll be constantly reminded of how insane and heartbreaking our country’s gun violence is, and you’ll be more likely to keep fighting — and end up saving lives.


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Let’s keep the conversation going. Write to me at [email protected].

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