The Psychology of Trauma: How We Deal With Disaster

When a large disaster strikes, some of those affected recover faster than others. Some may have recovered psychologically for the most part by a few weeks later; others find themselves considerably shaken up, still needing to find a therapist months down the road. Research just published by the Association for Psychological Science (link opens PDF) finds that, although factors like age play some role, the biggest influence on psychological recovery is support. Those who are more economically stable and with greater social support systems are more like to internalize the message “It’ll be okay.” To help foster this, researchers emphasize the importance of psychological first aid (PFA), which “focuses on providing practical help to survivors and promoting a sense of safety, connectedness, and hope.”

The importance of support holds true for near-disasters as well. USA Today recently shared the stories of airplane passengers whose flights were forced into emergency crash landing. If everyone survives such a landing, there’s no federal mandate that airlines provide psychological support in the form of counselors and therapy. But passengers are no less traumatized by the experience. Many say that the tone of the airline’s response immediately following such an incident plays the largest role in how passengers adapt in the first few hours. “They were treating the situation like a flight delay,” said Scott Bruni of his experience with Delta. “I needed them to show that they cared about what happened.” A gesture of support would go a long way, Bruni said.

Finally, there’s growing evidence suggesting that media exposure to strangers’ trauma impacts the psychological state of the viewer. Research out of the University of Haifa finds that after watching news clips of political violence, college students walk away with weakened psychological resources (such as feelings of commitment, success, and importance) and in a lower mood. This is an example of secondary trauma, which plays an even larger role through direct, personal exposure. For example, children raised by parents with PTSD are more likely to exhibit signs of depression and PTSD and be in need of ongoing counseling, even if they had no direct exposure to traumatic events themselves.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lacie


    February 3rd, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    the length of time for which effects of trauma remains also depends upon the psyche and the attitude of a person,doesn’t it?a person who is emotional and is afraid for his life will feel the effects for a longer time than someone who just doesn’t care.

  • maddie


    February 3rd, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    sad that someone has to die for someone to get the help that they probably do need. Can you imagine how shaken up you would be to have survived this? I would deinitely need someone to talk to, and the TSA should have to pay for the talks too.

  • Benson


    February 3rd, 2011 at 11:52 PM

    Its true. Some of us, including me, have low recovery skills after a traumatic event. Although it may seem like it is a disadvantage to have, I believe it is this very quality that makes people like me better at seeing the deeper meaning of things and be thankful for everything we have.

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