The terror attacks in San Bernardino and Paris have ratcheted upward—once again—our collective anxieties. And for the survivors of these tragedies, they have raised the specter of collateral psychological damage, such as posttraumatic stress disorder. Although the risks to survivors are indeed real, the psychological impact of these tragedies is more complicated than we realize. Most survivors of traumatic events will suffer no enduring psychological harm. More startlingly, some may actually experience direct psychological benefits from it.
How do we know this? In a study just published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues, Heather Littleton and Amie Grills, and I studied 368 female survivors of the Virginia Tech campus shootings, the most deadly civilian massacre in U.S. history. These students’ anxiety and depression had been measured before the shootings as part of a separate study and again at two, six, and 12 months after them. As a result, we had a rare window into their psychological reaction to the tragedy.
Not surprisingly, about 20 percent of survivors saw substantial increases in anxiety or depression that continued to increase for 12 months, a reaction consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder. On the other hand, almost 60 percent had low levels of depression and anxiety and no statistically discernible uptick after the shootings, a result that confirms the human capacity for resilience. Most remarkable, though, was a group of survivors whose psychological health actually improved. About 15 percent of the sample, in fact, reported substantial reductions in anxiety or depression (or both) in the year after the shooting.
It seemed that the trauma itself had healed these students’ distress. But how? One explanation is that acute stress activates our own best selves. Under stress, we are more trusting, more willing to share, and we appear more trustworthy to others. We are more sensitive to our social environment and to the needs of other people, instincts described as “tend-and-befriend” by the psychologist Shelley Taylor.
But that is not the whole story. Acute stress, as well as pain, binds us in solidarity with others. Psychologist Brock Bastian and colleagues have described this as the “social glue” of shared pain. When a group of people undergoes a painful or stressful experience together, they tend to feel closer, cooperate more and forget grievances. The power of shared suffering to alter our relationships with others is nowhere more evident than after disaster strikes. As one survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, in a letter to her relatives, wrote: “The spirit of this people is the most wonderful thing I ever dreamed of.” Indeed, for more than half a century, historians and sociologists have variously described the aftermath of mass trauma as a “post-disaster utopia,” a “city of comrades,” and “a democracy of distress.”
Will the survivors of the San Bernardino attacks experience greater solidarity, cooperation, and mutual support? Our results with the Virginia Tech survivors suggest they may. Across all students there was an increase in the belief that friends and family would be available if needed. Moreover, the psychologically improved group reported, by far, the greatest increase. They were also the most likely to report gains in intimacy and to perceive an increased sense that “I can count on my friends when things go wrong.” Remarkably, their social ties substantially strengthened for a full year after the shootings. By contrast, the group struggling with high levels of depression and anxiety (a potential posttraumatic stress reaction) reported no increase — and even a slight decline — in their perceptions of support from others.
Was the tragedy responsible for these survivors’ closer relationships and better psychological functioning? From a scientific standpoint, we cannot say with certainty. But psychological distress is exquisitely responsive to the quality of our relationships, as evidenced by the substantial relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder and poor social support. If a traumatic event stitches us into a supportive network, we may not only be protected from adverse psychological consequences. We may even, paradoxically, find ourselves better off as a result of the trauma. All of this suggests that a fundamental and sometimes forgotten reservoir of healing, as George Eliot once said of her novel Silas Marner, is simply “the remedial influences of pure, natural human relations.”
Mancini is an associate professor of Psychology at Pace University.