Potential Signs of Trauma After A Mass Shooting Event

Original Publishing Date:
July 6, 2022
Last Update:
July 26, 2023

〰️If you are experiencing, or know someone who is experiencing any thoughts of harming yourself, suicide, or harming someone else please call 911 immediately〰️

It is with a heavy heart that we respond to yet another mass shooting event, this one at our front door. On July 4th 2022 our Highland Park, Illinois community experienced the unthinkable during a Fourth of July parade.  We also recognize that many in our Chicago community are impacted by gun violence and mass shootings daily. It is important to understand how these events affect our mental and emotional wellbeing. As we continue to process mass shootings and gun violence, there are symptoms of trauma we want you to understand so you know when to get extra help. For a general article on signs of childhood trauma in adults please go here.

Please note, there is not a single symptom listed here that in any way, shape, or form indicates a sign of weakness or failure to be strong. This is the natural, biomechanical response of the body to dangerous situations. Once an event is over, the body sometimes needs to learn “normal” regulation again.

If you have been impacted by a community trauma event, directly or indirectly, we are here to help. Our providers are trained in providing Online EMDR and are experts in trauma recovery. Sign up is easy!

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Nervous System

Any event that relates to our survival triggers the safety mechanisms in the central nervous system. The body responds in two ways: upregulation and downregulation. We might feel a mix of the symptoms listed that can occur immediately following a mass shooting or other violent event, or the symptoms may last for weeks, months, and years without intervention.


The upregulation system is the body’s attempt to run away or flee a potentially dangerous situation. This can occur when directly involved in an event like the parade or more subtly while watching the news of events that our neighbors, friends, and family are experiencing. The signs and symptoms of trauma due to an upregulation of the system may include:

  • Intense emotions and crying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of anger or a short temper
  • A state of constant alertness (hypervigilance)
  • Feeling jumpy, on-edge, or easily startle
  • Challenges with feeling calm with a general nervousness
  • Stress or difficulty tolerating stressful situations
  • Fidgety feelings in the body or the need to move around
  • Flashbacks and intense memories with intrusive images, sounds, smells, or sensations
  • Avoiding places, people, or things that remind you of the event
  • Loneliness and feeling like no one understands
  • Negative thoughts about ourselves or others
  • Thinking others might be angry with us when they are not
  • Unable to focus or follow through
  • Physical pain like heachaches, chronic neck or back pain; Stomach and digestion problems.
  • Changes in either overeating or not eating enough
  • Overuse of alcohol, drugs, or sex to avoid negative feelings


The downregulation system is the body’s attempt to handle a sense of being trapped when unable to escape a danger. It is sometimes referred to as “playing dead” as it is witnessed in various nature scenes where the prey goes limp once caught by its predator (think Lion and Gazelle). By downregulating, the body might freeze up or go numb in order to wait for the danger to pass. Even if a danger has passed, the body can struggle to feel safe again. Overwhelming emotions, memories, images, or fear of future events can lock the body into a downregulated state. The signs and symptoms of trauma due to a downregulation of the system may include:

  • Feeling numb in body, particularly in legs and arms
  • Unable to feel emotions
  • Feeling disconnected from our body, a.k.a. dissociation
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Oversleeping
  • Lack of motivation
  • Negative thoughts about ourselves or others
  • Hearing songs or other distracting noises or visuals in our mind when trying to focus on something
  • Unable to think at all
  • Unable to recall memories, details of events, or notice “blank spots” in attempting to recall
  • Thoughts of harming oneself
  • Feeling fatigued or tired most days
  • No longer feeling social or unable to speak
  • Stomach and digestion issues
  • Unable to find words when having a conversation
  • Isolation from others and social supports
  • Overuse of drugs, alcohol, or sex to feel again

Self-help Strategies


Many experience strong emotions or body sensations and do not realize it is grief. Sometimes the most important thing we can do in response to senseless violence is to feel feelings. Please do not underestimate the impact of grief and the importance of working through feelings of loss, which can include loved ones, family members, freedoms, old traditions, conflict within the country, etc.

Thought Monitoring

One of the key symptoms of trauma listed for both upregulation and downregulation responses in the nervous system is negative thinking. One may find that old beliefs or values regarding ourselves, others, or the world have been impacted by mass shooting events and gun violence. Attempt to monitor the negative spiral and notice how it impacts your mood or body sensations. Challenge your negative beliefs with alternative beliefs that feel more balanced and grounded.

Spirituality and Faith

Meaning making, value systems, social connections within a faith practice, prayer, meditation on spiritual tenants or scripture has been shown to improve resilience during stressful and traumatic events. Intentional engagement with the above calms the nervous system and facilitates internal connection.

Engaging with Support Network

It is reasonable and understandable that large crowds or gatherings may feel scary at this time. There is no need for shame in avoiding certain situations that signify danger at this time. However, it is important to combat anxiety and isolation with social connectedness. Even when feeling numb, intentionally connecting with trusted others facilitates the body and brain in finding equilibrium again.


Meditation is a popular and commonly known way to help the body regulate after stressful or traumatic life events. This includes repeating mantras, sitting quietly while connecting with the body, breathing exercises, yoga, and stretching. For either upregulated or downregulated trauma symptoms, breathwork that incorporates long exhales stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s rest and digest system.


It might feel impossible, or even inappropriate, to focus on an activity you enjoy. However, to recover from a traumatic event it is necessary to help our nervous systems find an even balance again. This can be done through play and fun. Through these activities, upregulated folks can activate calm states and downregulated folks can safely introduce connection within the body.

Professional Help

When do you need it?

Seeking professional services from a mental health expert or counselor is helpful at any stage of life or when looking for additional support. Please consider working with a mental health professional if:

  • You are feeling too fatigued to implement self-help strategies
  • Do not have a strong social support network
  • Hesitate to reach out to friends or family for help in fear they are too overwhelmed themselves
  • Would like an extra hand in implementing or practicing nervous system regulation strategies
  • Would like accountability
  • The self-help strategies have not worked
  • Just want someone to talk to who is impartial and non-judgemental
  • Experiencing general and lasting impairment in work performance, interpersonal relationships, or other areas of life

Please seek immediate assistance from a mental health professional if you are experiencing:

  • Flashbacks
  • Intense fear
  • Addiction issues
  • Significant physical health issues in response to the trauma
  • Experiencing significant impairment in work performance, interpersonal relationships, or other areas of life
  • Feelings, thoughts, or sensations that exceed average coping skills
  • Suicidal thoughts; thoughts of harming yourself or others

Who can help?

We recommend seeking a professional with specific skills and training in trauma-recovery. There are a few specialties that indicate the provider is proficient in helping you with these specific needs. The training can include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Psychological First Aid (PFA), Critical Incident Stress management (CISM), and more.

All Virtual Therapy Clinic / Chicago Counseling staff are trained in EMDR and specialize in trauma recovery. Please reach out for an appointment to match you with a trauma-recovery expert to prevent longer term adverse effects from these events.

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Rachael Miller, MA, LCPC, NCC, EAC, EMDR-C

Rachael is a Board Certified, Licensed Clinical Therapist and the owner of Chicago Counseling. She is known for her work both nationally and globally for creating dozens of innovative community programs, education seminars, and intervention optimization projects.

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