Can You Become Desensitized to Death?

A young woman rides a bus and stares serenely out the window

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Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve lost more than 620,000 Americans (and counting) to the COVID-19 virus. Many of us have returned to pre-pandemic activities and may no longer be fazed by the daily death count. While the deaths felt like tragedies at first, they have now become common occurrences. 

The frequency at which we experience something can lessen our sensitivity to it. When you’re exposed to death regularly, you can become desensitized to it, affecting the way you empathize, mourn, and grieve. 

The Basics of Desensitization 

Desensitization can be used to treat phobias, fears, or other mental health disorders. It can help train your brain to remove the anxiety or fear that accompanies a trigger-inducing situation, such as seeing a spider, driving, or getting a vaccine. The treatment may start with imagination and end with exposure to remove the trauma, minimizing the fear and desensitizing you to the situation, so you don't panic when you experience it in real life.

While desensitization can be beneficial for your mental health, it can also be detrimental. If you become desensitized to violence or death, you could become less sensitive to others’ suffering, lose the ability to empathize, or start to behave in more aggressive ways.

“Desensitization is the process or treatment by which repeated exposure lessens emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive, or positive stimulus,” says Bryan Bruno, MD, medical director for Mid City TMS. “Desensitization can occur with anything, including death.”

Signs and Symptoms

While there’s no “normal” reaction to death, it’s natural to grieve and mourn. After a loss, you may feel shock, numbness, anger, guilt, helplessness, yearning, or sadness. Not experiencing an emotional reaction to death or not empathizing with someone who is grieving may be a sign of desensitization. 

Bryan Bruno, MD, medical director for Mid City TMS

For some, death desensitization is preferable. But stopping emotions entirely can result in negative effects.

— Bryan Bruno, MD, medical director for Mid City TMS

If you’re experiencing desensitization to death, Dr. Bruno explains that you may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Lack of grief 
  • Inability to mourn
  • Comedic responses to death
  • Apathy 

Anyone who witnesses death frequently can become desensitized. If the experience of seeing people dying, in real life or the media, becomes normalized, you may no longer experience an emotional reaction to it. You may not cry; you may not feel sad or angry. You may continue with your day as if nothing even happened. 

Risk Factors 

Those who are more susceptible to death desensitization are soldiers, medical professionals, frontline workers, drug users, those in recovery, and those living in areas with high crime rates. 

Watching violent movies and playing violent video games can also lead to the desensitization of violence, but exposure to real-life violence has a greater impact. One study found that youth exposed to high levels of violence may experience more trauma and avoidance, escape to fantasy, and express less empathy. This, in turn, affects their social relationships and may contribute to more violent behavior and/or the failure to intervene in violent situations.

For those in situations where death is inevitable, such as trauma units or war, desensitization can benefit survival. Avoiding the emotions associated with death may make it easier to deal with the constant exposure. Still, it can harm your mental health and your relationship with others in the long term if it’s not addressed.

Coping 

If you live in a crime-prone neighborhood, you may witness violence and death on a routine basis. If you’re an oncologist nurse, you may be surrounded by dying patients. If you’re in a recovery program, you may lose friends to a drug overdose. You may not have the option to avoid death, but you can practice coping mechanisms to deal with it.

“The world is full of death right now, with events such as hate crimes, systemic racism, and COVID-related deaths,” says Jessica Eiseman, MS, LPC-S, NCC, owner and clinical director at Ajana Therapy & Clinical Services. “You don’t need to inundate yourself with the media if you are already exposed consistently to death.”

If you want to prevent desensitization or practice coping mechanisms, Eiseman recommends the following suggestions:

  • Practice grounding techniques, such as the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. “Grounding calms our nervous system and allows us to be present in the here and now,” says Eiseman. “When we are more mindful and present, this allows us the space to process things in a more intentional and clear way.”
  • Minimize or reduce burnout and compassion fatigue. The more burnt out we are, the more likely we are to be cynical, have lower overall job satisfaction, and be less compassionate toward ourselves and others, Eiseman explains. Keep in mind when you are numb, she adds, you aren’t just numbing the bad stuff, but you’re numbing the good stuff, too.
  • Reduce your stress. “The more you can reduce your stress in other areas of your life, the more likely you are to be able to handle the difficulties of dealing with death,” Eiseman says. 

Attending therapy can also help, Eiseman explains. You can work with a professional on letting go of difficult images, memories, thoughts, or other traumas. 

Treatment for Desensitization

“Combatting death desensitization requires therapeutic intervention,” says Dr. Bruno. One common therapeutic intervention uses "regression," he explains. This includes creating a therapeutic experience in which desensitized feelings can become re-connected to experiences and circumstances. Though it brings negative emotions along with the positive ones, this can help people with death desensitization return to a healthy relationship with loss.”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may help. Eiseman explains, “This empirically supported therapy can actually change the pathways of your brain. So if exposure to death has created certain neural pathways, then working with a trained therapist can help to counteract this by challenging your thoughts and behaviors and generating new pathways in your brain.”

Eiseman also recommends internal family systems (IFS), which can help you reengage your emotions and learn to become sensitive to death again.

You don’t, however, want to become obsessed with death either. If you are constantly thinking about death or have death anxiety, therapy may help.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re frequently exposed to death, you may find yourself burying the emotions or laughing it off, but It’s important to find healthy ways to cope. If coping strategies aren’t working or if you’re concerned that you’ve become desensitized to death, then you’ll want to consider speaking with a mental health therapist.

As human beings, we know death is inevitable, but it’s natural to feel emotional when those around us die. Grief isn’t easy to deal with, but support is available to help you through it.

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2 Sources
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