Bystanders of Random Shootings and Other Violence

Why these tragedies affect us all so strongly

Random violence affects us all deeply for many reasons. Tim Gamble/EyeEm/Getty Images

Random violence is becoming increasingly common. Still, each time a public shooting or other forms of unforeseeable violence occurs and dominates the news, the emotional impact is just as devastating as if the instance was the first.

Why We All Feel the Impact

The toll that these events take on those involved is unimaginable. But for the rest of the world—those of us who look on helplessly and try to make sense of the senseless—are also affected for several reasons. Why wouldn't everyone be impacted by such news? The question may seem silly to explore. But doing so can help us make sense of our feelings.

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

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.


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. This makes us all realize—and worry—that something like this could happen to us or our loved ones with no warning as well.

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 and stress over what could have been done to prevent this, so we can know how to feel safer.

Coping With Your Feelings

It is not uncommon to feel like tending to your own feelings is unnecessary or even selfish if you were not personally involved in a tragedy. But any feelings you experience are real, and they can have a real impact. 

Seek Social Support

Most of us are best able to work through our feelings when we talk things out with someone we trust—a good friend, a partner, or a therapist. This 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 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 in 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.

A Prompt for Action

We may push away feelings of anxiety and distress over such instances of violence. But, more positively, we may allow them to push us to action to do anything we can to prevent tragic events like these from occurring again.

Control What You Can

Tragedies can make us feel helpless by pointing out how we and our loved ones can be vulnerable even in seemingly safe, everyday situations, such as the shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas in 2017. It’s jarring to be reminded that we could be in danger at any time.

One way to feel safer is to avoiding obviously dangerous situations. Of course, random acts of violence are exactly that—random. But if there are known, credible warnings about a potential threat, you may feel more empowered by heeding them as opposed to worrying about their reality.

Another is to have a clear plan in your mind as to what to do in an emergency situation, should you ever find yourself in one. Work to become more trusting of your intuition and to listen to the inner voice that warns you of potentially dangerous people.

Be Part of the Bigger Effort

On a larger scale, we can work to be a part of bigger efforts to make sure violence is eliminated—or minimized if such a tragedy were to happen again—in the future.

For example, 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.

While some of these efforts are at an institutional or government level, there may be ways for you to become involved in related organizations, or for you to at least voice your support of these efforts.

Reach Out

Those who would do something as senseless and violent as a shooting, for example, 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. Let such events inspire us to reach out to an acquaintance who may be isolated and lonely, or spark us to seek help or support should we need it.

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