Community violence can take many forms: riots, sniper attacks, gang wars and drive-by shootings, and workplace assaults. On a larger scale, terrorist attacks, torture, bombings, war, ethnic cleansing, and widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse can affect entire populations. Natural disasters can be traumatic, but community violence has several unique features that can lead to a lingering and devastating traumatic impact:

Sometimes in natural disasters people have time to prepare themselves, but community violence usually happens without warning and comes as a sudden and terrifying shock.

Natural disasters can force people to leave their homes and friends, but community violence can permanently destroy entire neighborhoods and end friendships — or make the neighborhood or the relationships too unsafe to trust and continue.

Natural disasters are uncontrollable and unpreventable, but community violence is the product of people’s actions. Even though most survivors of community violence are innocent victims, they may feel guilty, responsible, self-blaming, ashamed, powerless, or inadequate because they wish they could have prevented the violence even though it was beyond their control.

The damage caused by natural disasters is accidental. Community violence involves terrible harm done on purpose, which can lead survivors to feel an extreme sense of betrayal and distrust toward other people.

Being victimized by violence leads some individuals to react with violence, but there is no evidence as yet that survivors of community violence who have PTSD are more prone to perpetrating community violence than survivors who do not have PTSD. While PTSD does not cause violence, PTSD symptoms can lead survivors of community violence to have difficulty managing violent feelings or impulses. For example, people with PTSD due to witnessing or being directly exposed to community violence may experience:

  • very disturbing memories and feelings of reliving the violence.

  • flashbacks or nightmares, in which they unintentionally act violently in order to protect themselves.
  • feeling indifferent to their own or other people’s suffering because they feel emotionally numb and cut off from others.
  • increased arousal, startle responses, and hypervigilance (feeling extremely on-guard or in danger).
  • feelings of betrayal and anger from being exposed to violence in what should be their “safe haven.”