My Reflections on Desensitization and the Atlanta Spa Shootings

Woman picking up newspaper with a headline about the Atlanta spa shooting

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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This is a story that reflects on a 2021 mass shooting. Some details in this piece may be disturbing to readers, especially those who have experienced the trauma of gun violence and/or recent hate crimes. If reading this brings up uncomfortable feelings for you, you can speak confidentially with trained advocates for free. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

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When news of the Atlanta spa shootings broke, I was sitting in my aunt’s living room in a suburb of Seoul. We’d been watching a lot of TV lately because there wasn’t much else to do. The news was always the same: COVID cases dipping slightly, then rising, then falling again. Updates on safety measures, developing vaccines, personal interest stories about specific cases. My relatives and I straightened up when the screen flared with police lights, yellow caution tape, a strip mall, and a scene from my home country. 

On the TV, lights were flashing blue and red, and we learned that a White male shooter had killed eight people, including six Asian women, across three different spas in Atlanta. When the news flashed the names of some of the victims, half of whom were Korean American, my aunt began to cry. I was surprised by my family’s distress. Don’t we hear about horrible things happening in other places all the time?

As the breaking news report continued, my relatives murmured questions that I had stopped asking a long time ago. Questions like: How did he get a gun? Why did he do it? How could this have happened?

Yet the longer I thought about it, the more I began to question my own muted reaction. Innocent women, several of whom were close in age to my own mother and aunt, had been violently murdered. The problem was that, after a year of news about the murder of Black Americans by police, the skyrocketing rates of violence against Asian Americans, and the mass death of the pandemic itself, I had become desensitized to the death and suffering all around me. 

The interesting thing about desensitization is that it can be both a therapeutic tool and a problematic numbing response. Having struggled with generalized anxiety disorder throughout my teens and early twenties, I’ve practiced and benefited from many different kinds of therapeutic techniques utilized in systematic desensitization including breathwork, muscle relaxation, and gradual exposure to anxiety-inducing situations. Such methods ease anxiety and panic by reducing painful emotional and physical responses over time. 

However, because desensitization is simply a bodily response, it can also have negative effects. For example, regular exposure to images, news, or other stimuli related to violence gradually reduces our emotional response to the violence over time. Researchers have shown that desensitization can have multiple outcomes, including reduced sympathy and empathy, reduced emotional response, and greater hesitancy to respond in a violent situation.

Desensitization to racism can work similarly. If a problem seems too big to fix, and presents itself in everyday circumstances, wouldn’t it make more sense that your body eventually shuts down the usual emotional responses in order to survive? 

If a problem seems too big to fix, and presents itself in everyday circumstances, wouldn’t it make more sense that your body eventually shuts down the usual emotional responses in order to survive?

Yet to my Korean family living as the ethnic majority in a country with highly restricted access to guns, such violence was a shock. In the following days, as the Korean news went on to interview family and friends of the victims, to share stories about their lives, a kind of collective grief filled our home. We talked at length about the women, their families, and connected their stories of immigration with my mother’s. The shooting, and witnessing my family’s reaction to it, woke me up to the ways in which I had become numb and how that was not okay.

I began to notice how different I had felt in Korea than in the United States. I felt safer going outside, not only because everyone followed the mask mandate in public spaces, but also because I didn’t need to scan for exit signs when entering a building. Gun violence and racial violence had been a constant and real fear running in the back of my mind in the US, while in Korea my body could relax in daily circumstances. I realized that while desensitization was probably necessary on some level, it’s also necessary to feel the painful feelings, to go through the necessary grieving, instead of shutting off entirely. 

I think desensitization is a tool, one that can be helpful or harmful. While it’s important for me to not be incapacitated by the news, by the reality of ongoing violence and racism, it’s also necessary for me to be able to frequent public places and go grocery shopping without my heart racing, to be able to enter a space without scanning desperately for the emergency exits. I realized practicing intentional desensitization techniques along with other tools, such as talk therapy, were needed for me to function normally without shutting down to violence, racism, and other unfortunate realities of life.

I think desensitization is a tool, one that can be helpful or harmful. While it’s important for me to not be incapacitated by the news, by the reality of ongoing violence and racism, it’s also necessary for me to be able to frequent public places and go grocery shopping without my heart racing, to be able to enter a space without scanning desperately for the emergency exits.

In the year since the Atlanta spa shooting, there have been some positive changes; perhaps the most pronounced being increased awareness of racism and discrimination against AAPI people. The Stop AAPI Hate coalition, and related grassroots organizations, have made significant progress in highlighting the reality of racism.

When the new presidential administration took office, they were vocal about their support for AAPI communities and denouncing the racist violence that had spiked during the pandemic. But if you look up keywords like anti-Asian hate today, there are few new articles—most are from 2021. But that doesn’t mean that the violence or racism has ended, or that AAPI people are doing okay. We have to remember these realities without becoming desensitized. We have to be able to strike a balance that enables us to live well without becoming numb to the injustices that occur all too often around us. 

At this point, I am trying to learn to use the positive aspects of desensitization without becoming so numb that I no longer feel the appropriate response to incidents of violence, hatred, or racism. While I still practice deep breathing and other therapeutic tactics, I also take the time to read about my histories, including AAPI histories, to learn about how racism harms us all and prevents the kind of solidarity and community-building we need. It’s important for me to stay engaged with my communities, and to continue learning, seeing, and feeling.

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  1. Cantor J. Violence in films and television. In: Encyclopedia of International Media and Communications. Elsevier; 2003:573-584. doi:10.1016/B0-12-387670-2/00312-5