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The Second Fight: The Psychological Consequences of Self-Defense Shootings

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A homeowner in Georgia shoots and mortally wounds three robbers who break into his home. A student living off-campus in Los Angeles shoots and wounds a man who enters her apartment through an unlocked screen door. Both incidents are ruled as justified shootings. Both people go back to life exactly as it was without a glance in the rearview mirror, right?

Not necessarily.

The emotional impact of being forced to use a weapon in self-defense varies from person to person, and it is critical to note that each person will navigate the aftermath in different ways. There are no real clear trends based on gender, age or occupation. An individual in law enforcement may not necessarily cope with the aftereffects more easily than a private citizen. How a person copes is not a reflection of his or her strength, character, intelligence or ability to “handle” stressors in life. Every individual’s brain responds in a way that is unique to that person, and each individual has a vastly different background and set of experiences that will play a part in moving forward after the incident.

Once the Dust Settles

The one to three days immediately following a shooting are primarily focused on fact-gathering. An individual will speak with various law enforcement entities and an attorney and will possibly be concerned about facing charges as he or she waits to be vindicated. During this time, it is likely that the individual in question will be hyper-focused on giving information, talking about the incident, making the necessary phone calls and so on. The individual may feel as if he or she is just moving through the necessary steps in a dull, numb fashion, similar to what a person experiences after the death of a loved one.

Comments and feedback from well-meaning (and some not-so-well-meaning) people are almost always bothersome. Such remarks may be drastically incongruent from the individual’s own feelings. For example, a friend may say to someone who wounded an assailant in a carjacking, “Too bad you didn’t kill him.” The individual involved may feel rather relieved that he or she didn’t fatally wound the culprit. Another example might be the comment, “You must feel great that you protected yourself.” Well, yes, and at the same time, no. No one looks forward to an incident that results in having to fire a weapon to wound or kill another human.

No one looks forward to an incident that results in having to fire a weapon to wound or kill another human.

The individual who was forced to shoot will also be dealing with the emotions inflicted by social media attacks and peer feedback that his or her family members and close friends experience. This additional pressure can exacerbate the difficulties the individual experiences and may impact his or her job or school performance or relationships.

It is important to remember that the individual who was forced to defend himself or herself can control the amount of information he or she gives to people and is not obligated to talk to anyone other than law enforcement about the incident. He or she should not let people “extort” information.

Overall, the individual must remain prepared for feedback and comments that may elicit anger, anxiety or frustration but shouldn’t go out of his or her way to feed information into a system that will seem intent on inflicting as much stress as possible.

Day 3 and Forward

A few days after the incident, it is likely the individual will experience a high amount of anxiety and physical restlessness, even if he or she has been reassured the shooting was justified and no charges have been filed. The person may feel irritable or hyper-vigilant, have difficulty concentrating, and think a great deal about the incident. Sleep disruption is possible, along with having difficulty “shutting down.” The individual may go days without being able to sleep properly or could lose his or her appetite or interest in activities that he or she would normally find enjoyable.

It’s important to note that none of these emotional manifestations are abnormal, cause for panic or a sign that an individual “did something wrong.” While TV and movies are notorious for showing a shooter walking away from a deadly force incident with nothing but a smile, these depictions are far from reality.

Most people draw personal comparisons to what they read and see, and some assume there is something horribly wrong if their own reactions don’t stack up. One client I treated after an incident said he felt like he had “died a thousand deaths,” experiencing an emotional roller coaster for a full four months.

Where Does PTSD Fit In?

Many people experiencing a situation like the one described above will wonder if they are experiencing PTSD, or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” As most know, PTSD has been around for centuries and has been given a variety of names, such as “soldier’s heart,” “nostalgia” and “shell shock.” In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Today, we associate the diagnosis of PTSD not only with active and retired members of the military but also among the private-citizen population. That said, many clinicians feel that the term is overused. To be given the formal diagnosis of PTSD, a person must experience all or some of its symptoms for a minimum of a month after the event.

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

It is important to again reinforce the fact that any individual who is experiencing difficulties after an incident is not “mentally ill” or necessarily suffering from PTSD. While PTSD is listed as a condition in the psychiatric “bible,” it does not make that person mentally ill, unfit for work or in need of drastic intervention.

Time to Self-Evaluate

Three to seven days after the incident is a great time to do an honest self-inventory to see how you are doing. Are you sailing along fine? Experiencing symptoms of anxiety, self-doubt or irritability? Take a moment to assign a rating to your emotions using a scale of 1 to 5 — 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest. It doesn’t have to be shared with anyone or written down. If you feel you are on the high side of 3, it is time to consider what you might want to do to sort some of these issues out.

It’s hard for the vast majority of people to “just ask for help,” especially when it comes to dealing with emotional matters. However, I find that if a person sees help as coaching or simply having another person to listen to him or her, he or she gets over the hump a little easier. Here are just a few types of assistance that can help an individual navigate life after a deadly force incident:

  • Conversations with peers: Does the individual have a good friend or partner who has been helpful in the past? Maybe it’s just to vent or to revisit the incident and have this confidant reassure him or her that he or she took all the right steps. How each person relies on social support is distinctive; that is, some individuals will choose to isolate while others will use family and friends to assist in recovering from any unpleasant emotional consequences.
  • Spousal support: Some individuals are lucky and have a spouse who acts as a sounding board, counselor and friend bundled all in one. Because spouses are certainly impacted by deadly force incidents too, the individual who was forced into the situation should be certain it will benefit both to talk about it before jumping into a conversation about what it was like to shoot someone.
  • Psychologist/therapist: If the individual in question prefers a confidential setting, some short-term “get back on track” counseling will be beneficial. The challenge here will be to locate a therapist who is familiar with how to approach and handle post-self-defense-incident individuals and families. An individual’s best resource for such a professional may be the police agency who handled the incident or like-minded friends who personally know of an individual in the area who can provide the proper services.
  • Clergy: Some find support from a religious leader to be the most effective help. I was on-site at a large employer’s campus in Southern California when a former employee walked onto the property and shot six people. After the scene was cleared by the police and we began to debrief the hundreds of employees, more than half of them requested clergy on site as soon as possible.
  • Individual self-support: Some do their best work internally using resources such as books, exercise, focusing on a work project or other manners in which they can work through an incident on their own. Most critical is to be acutely aware of how the person is doing over time. Are things improving or getting worse?

Finally, it is important to remember that the problems an individual faces will decrease over time with the proper support. In short, the individual will return to his or her “old self” with help and time.


PTSD was not formally recognized among medical professionals until after the Vietnam War.

PTSD Undiagnosed for Centuries

PTSD went undiagnosed among soldiers for centuries. By the end of World War I, British Army physicians diagnosed 80,000 soldiers with what they called “shell shock,” one of the many terms used to describe severe cases of war trauma. Despite reported examples dating back for hundreds of years, PTSD was not formally recognized among medical professionals until after the Vietnam War. —Frank Jastrzembski, Associate Editor

The 4 Circles

There are four circles of individuals impacted during a shooting incident:

  • Circle 1: The individual directly involved
  • Circle 2: The immediate family and loved ones — children, parents or siblings
  • Circle 3: The individual’s associates — workplace, church, social clubs, kids’ sport clubs, kids’ schoolteachers, classmates, etc.
  • Circle 4: Lesser-known acquaintances — distant co-workers, neighbors with whom you have little contact, “friends” on social media, etc.

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