Healing from the trauma of gun violence
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written byAmye Archer, MFA
Last updated: 02/03/2023
In May 2017, 34-year-old Bruce Nash was walking home from work through a Philadelphia neighborhood when he was shot eight times at close range in what appeared to be a targeted attack.1 After two weeks in a coma, Nash woke up with a new sense of the world.
The streets he’d walked on for most of his life felt different after his recovery. “I knew I felt anxious and scared, but didn’t really know why,” Nash says. A few years later, he revisited the intersection where the shooting took place. “I couldn’t get out of the car for, like, 15 minutes. I froze.”
Patience Murray, a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, has had similar anguished moments.2 She was only 20 years old when she was held hostage with others in a bathroom stall for hours while a gunshot wound in her leg ached beneath her.
Today Murray says she still struggles with doors, open or closed. “If a door is open and there are too many chaotic sounds outside, I don’t feel safe. But when the door is closed, that also bothers me,” she says.
Nash and Murray experienced gun violence in very different contexts, but their struggles as survivors run parallel. How can they—and others who’ve faced the everyday reality of gun violence in America—move forward without getting trapped in a constant state of trauma?
The difference between retraumatization and PTSD
Retraumatization is a condition in which someone with preexisting trauma is triggered by a new stressor and responds intensely.3 This can happen from watching media coverage of a similar event, revisiting the place where the trauma occurred, observing or participating in a trial associated with the trauma, taking part in an active shooter drill, or experiencing sensory triggers like sounds or smells.
We often associate posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with retraumatization because PTSD also involves triggers that can bring a past trauma to the surface. Retraumatization can be part of PTSD, but it’s slightly different on its own.
Tasnim Sulaiman, LPC, is the founder of Black Men Heal, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that provides mental health treatment, psychoeducation, and community resources for men of color. PTSD is a diagnosis based on the frequency, duration, and longevity of symptoms, Sulaiman says: “It is persistent and interferes with your daily life.” If you can’t eat, sleep, work, or keep up with social activities due to past trauma, you may be experiencing PTSD.
In contrast, retraumatization happens as a small burst. You’re exposed to a trigger and instead of reacting as you are in that moment, you travel back in time to the original trauma, and it can feel just as real as it did then.
Sulaiman says retraumatization is similar to how we feel when we hear a familiar song for the first time in years. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this song brings back memories. I remember exactly where I was in my life during that time,’” she says. “It’s almost a reimagining of where you were at in your mind and your body.”
Reliving trauma in the moment
When retraumatization occurs, says Sulaiman, we usually experience a highly reactive trauma response known as fight, flight, or freeze. Here’s how each one looks:
In flight mode, our instinct is to run away and avoid the trigger. This happened to Murray when she walked into a public bathroom a few months after the shooting and realized it resembled the stall at Pulse. “I had a real moment,” she says. “I felt this heavy, dark energy, and I had to get out of there.”
In fight mode, our instinct is to react in an explosive or angry way. You might start yelling or acting out physically.
In freeze mode, our instinct is to disengage, shrink away, or “dim our natural light,” as Sulaiman puts it. You might grow quiet or, more commonly, hypervigilant. Nash has been hypervigilant since his shooting, he says, especially because no one has been held accountable yet. “I just have no more trust. That’s gone,” he says.
Building resilience after trauma
Being retraumatized wears down your resilience, says Sulaiman. To prevent or ease your response to a trigger, you have to rebuild what’s been damaged. She recommends these steps:
Minimize your exposure to triggers. This might mean avoiding the news, which often shows stories and images that can harm us when we’re vulnerable. A “media fast,” as Sulaiman calls it, “gives you more room to attend to yourself and provides space and time for you to heal.” Both news outlets and social media can be unwitting factors in the retraumatization of gun violence survivors, as we’ll explore below.
Allow room for difficult emotions. “Give yourself permission to have the grief, the loss, the angst, the fear, the crying, whatever it is,” says Sulaiman. “Sometimes we’re so upset with ourselves for being debilitated by something, but it’s okay.” She recommends meditation and mindfulness to help you tune in to yourself.
Listen to your body. Sometimes we’ll have an emotional response to a trigger, but if we pay close attention, we’ll notice that our bodies reacted first by, for example, tensing up or freezing. “Getting mastery over your body and learning how to burn off adrenaline and release things through exercise or movement can be a big help,” Sulaiman says.
Murray began exercising every day after her shooting and says she loves the way it makes her feel. “When you’re on the treadmill or the bike, you’re in your own incubator with whatever inspirational stuff you’re listening to,” she says. “That’s your bubble. The rest of the world just fades away.”
Connect with a mental health professional. Sulaiman says people who work with a therapist after trauma are sometimes just trying to survive, but in the long term, “Therapy will help you push past survival and get to a place where you’re thriving again.” Finding a trauma-informed therapist can help you process the role trauma plays in your life.
Turning to peers for support
For those with limited access to traditional therapy, faith communities or organizations like Black Men Heal can offer support. Sulaiman received a grant to offer free group therapy to youth and their families who’ve experienced gun violence. Groups work well for gun violence survivors for several reasons, she says:
They help close the coverage gap. There’s a chronic shortage of mental health professionals in the United States, and especially clinicians of color.4, 5 Sulaiman says groups are a necessary tool for providing mental health support to communities who need it most.
They reflect a shared experience. Nash and Murray each struggled to find a therapist who could understand their specific experiences of gun violence. In groups, people at various stages of healing can offer perspective from a place of empathy. This may help others understand what to expect and to find hope.
They help people name their experiences. “Oftentimes survivors feel like they’ve been through something and they’re struggling to name it,” says Sulaiman. “The beauty of group is that somebody else might name something and you go, ‘Yes! That’s exactly what I’m experiencing.’”
Deciding whether to avoid or engage with the news
The news can be full of triggers for gun violence survivors, and it’s gotten worse with the advent of citizen journalism.6 Anyone with access to a smartphone can capture violence in real time. This raw footage—which may include sights, sounds, and other details that can be triggering for survivors—may then be picked up by major news outlets and shown everywhere.
Both Nash and Murray have also had the unusual experience of watching their own shootings on the news. Nash remembers feeling upset and even ashamed when he saw himself on grainy surveillance footage. “I’m from the streets,” he says. “I’m not supposed to get shot. I’m supposed to be smarter than that.”
For survivors of high-profile shootings like Pulse, interacting with the press can be another kind of trigger. In the days after the shooting, as Murray recovered from her injury and relearned how to walk, she gave many interviews. But she soon realized that reliving the details of that night was taking a toll on her mental health.
“After those interviews were over, those journalists would go home and never call again. I was left to pick up the pieces,” Murray says. “Many reporters wanted me to relive the event, to go back to that night and share every single detail. This was traumatic for me.”
In Nash’s case, though, the press did also turn out to be helpful. He credits local reporters with connecting him to therapeutic resources, and he has been using the platform they’ve provided to help counsel other young men in his community who are experiencing gun violence.
Learning to live with fragments
Gun violence survivors are often left to fend for themselves after the media attention goes away—and for many, there’s no media attention in the first place. Some people are glad to return to normal, while others struggle to find resources to help them manage their trauma.
Nash still lives with bullets and fragments in his body. As he continues to heal, he has found a way to help work through his trauma and avoid triggers that may retraumatize him. Aside from the comfort of his faith, Nash finds solace in counseling others.
“I talk to a lot of guys in the neighborhood who’ve been shot five or six times,” he says. “Their mothers or girlfriends call me and say they’re depressed or acting a certain way. I talk to them about my situation and tell them they need to take care of themselves now. They need to focus on getting better.”
Murray has also taken the tools she learned in therapy and embarked on her own healing journey. Mindfulness, meditation, and exercise play important roles—and so does family.
She recently married Alex Murray, who lost his sister, Akyra, in the Pulse shooting. Patience was with Akyra that night in the bathroom stall, and she and Alex have turned processing their shared trauma into a love that helps heal them both.
About the author
Amye Archer, MFA, is a senior writer at therapist.com. She is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.
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