Female doctor looking through window at hospital

Are We Becoming Desensitized to Mass Death?

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Mass death tragedies have saturated the media as of late. COVID-19 has resulted in death tolls that once left us anxious and fearful, but now seem to be less of a shock factor. History has shown that desensitization to disaster is a common human response. Over time, we become less affected and more accustomed to the effects of disaster. We spoke with Dr. Diana Concannon, PsyD licensed psychologist and crisis response expert and Dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, regarding the desensitization of death. Below are her thoughts on this issue.

We sat down with Dr. Concannon to get her expert opinion on why this desensitization is occurring in our society and what we can do to honor the victims of these disasters.

Are you seeing people that are worried they are becoming "desensitized" to death? What trends are you observing around this? 

In disaster psychology, the desensitization or numbing to death or on-going threats has been well documented. Whether the threat is an enemy combatant during wartime, climate change and its many repercussions, or – as now – a relentless virus – we become accustomed to its effects. This is a survival mechanism, the way our brains adapt to an onslaught – no matter how horrific -- that is constant and persistent. It allows us to continue to function amidst adversity. 

Why were initially so upset by say, 50 deaths due to COVID-19 and now we're at practically 200k and the feeling is detached? 

Our brains are wired to respond to change. When we are confronted with something new, we rapidly evaluate whether it is of benefit, potential harm, or of no consequence to our individual worlds. It is why the initial death toll associated with COVID-19, though small in number, was experienced with more shock and terror than the larger numbers we have seen over time. Our brains have begun to adapt to the death associated with the virus.  

Why is becoming desensitized to death, or feeling like you are, possibly a good thing? Or at least, a natural thing? 

Adaption is a way by which we survive. By moving through the shock and horror that is associated with our initial response to tragedies such as the unacceptably high death toll associated with COVID-19, we can connect to the psychological and emotional strength to endure and to find solutions that can help us combat this challenge.
 
The death toll is frightening. Is the fright making us turn off? 
 
The death toll is frightening, and predictions of its increase – with no known end – render it even more so. In addition to cognitive adaptation to events over time, humans also experience a type of psychic numbing when dealing with events that involve large numbers of people. We have an easier time feeling empathy for one person than for large groups of people. Research has repeatedly shown that we become desensitized as the number of individuals affected by particular events increase. We don’t process large numbers as well as we do smaller numbers. This, in part, explains why we have witnessed genocides, have not had an effective response to climate change, and see some refusing to wear masks during the current crisis.
 
How do we find empathy and understanding within ourselves without caving? Or rather, how can we think about this death toll without succumbing to terror? 
 
Our shared current experience with COVID-19 can be terrifying and exhausting. To maintain our empathy for others, it is important to first extend it to ourselves and to those within our immediate circle.  The very act of mentally acknowledging that this is an extremely challenging, unsettling and – for far too many – tragic time, creates emotional space and strength to endure and to potentially contribute to much needed healing during this period.
 
Are there things we can do to feel like we're perhaps recognizing the dead? Like gestures of mourning that help set us free a little bit?
 
Grief is wildly unpredictable. It can hit at unexpected moments and be poignantly gentle or violently harsh. Approaching grief with respect helps us to honor both ourselves and those who we have lost, regardless of our relationship to them. Traditional rituals, such as moments of silence and lighting candles, pay homage to those who have passed by supporting us to cherish the memory of their lives and, indirectly, by reconnecting us to the value of our own existence. Donating our time or resources to a cause that positively contributes to the world in the name of others likewise helps us to honor those who have passed. Allowing ourselves to grieve, to take a moment out of what for many are disrupted and chaotic “new normal” days to reflect upon those who have died, is another way to find peace while recognizing those who have passed. And simply engaging in a kind act and dedicating it to those who are no longer with us connects us to the best of who we are personally and reminds us of the importance of our connection to each other.    

In order to adapt and continue living our lives, our brains have a psychological inclination to desensitize to disaster. With the rising death tolls associated with COVID-19, we must still honor those that have passed due to this tragic pandemic. In order to reconnect and to honor the valuable lives that have been lost, we must cognitively work to reflect. Empathy and grieving are exhausting. Adaptation allows us to get through challenging times, but we must not forget to grieve and allow ourselves time to remember those who have fallen to this tragic pandemic.

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