Atlantic Cities

Resilience Does Tend to Follow Horror

Resilience Does Tend to Follow Horror
Reuters

A horror like yesterday's has many layers of impact. There are the immediate victims of the bombings on Boylston Street and their families. There are the marathon spectators who escaped any physical harm but witnessed the madness up close. There are the rescue workers who boldly rushed into the gruesome scene. There are those who call the city home and hold its memories dear to heart. And outward from central Boston to the television screens that represent the communal edge of it all.

Little of comfort can be said at such times, and in many ways that's as it should be. Grief and sorrow will help us remember. Empathy and anger will help us respond. If tragedies like 9/11 have taught us anything more uplifting, however, it's that while some of us will understandably remain traumatized by the horrible events of April 15, 2013, a great many of us will look them in the face and emerge quite resilient.

In the six months following 9/11, a group of behavioral researchers surveyed the psychological response of nearly 3,000 residents from across metropolitan New York. The calls were a random representation of the city: from people who'd been exposed directly to the attacks to those who simply had a 212 area code. The researchers conducted an admittedly distant evaluation for trauma symptoms over the phone, and recorded how many clinical diagnostics for P.T.S.D. (there are 17 in all) each person revealed.

What they found, far more than previous trauma theories suggested they would, was the great prevalence of resilience. The researchers established a very conservative definition of resilience, applying it only to people who showed zero or one PTSD symptom — some of which, like sleep trouble, can exist even in the absence of any major event. Despite that strict measure, about 65 percent of the New York-area residents contacted for the study qualified as resilient within a half year of the attacks.

Responses did vary based on exposure to the tragedy. Only 54 percent of those in the towers at the time showed resilience, a comparable figure to those who had a friend or relative killed that day. Resilience among rescue workers dropped a bit more, toward 51 percent. People with compound exposure fared worse yet: only 40 percent of people who were both involved in the rescue and witnessed the attack were resilient, and that was true of only 33 percent of those who both saw it and had a loved one killed.

Still, for all the grotesque events of that day, at least a third of New Yorkers showed a resilient response no matter where they stood among the layers of impact. At the lowest end of the spectrum, more than a quarter of people physically injured in the attacks qualified as "probable" cases of PTSD. Yet even within this group, about a third also qualified as psychologically resilient.

The two events are not the same, of course, though it's reasonable to generalize the findings to some extent, since the post-9/11 study was a large and representative one. That won't make it any easier for Bostonians to wake up today, but it does give us faith that they too, in time, will respond to the tragedy the way human nature apparently intended: by enduring.

Top image: The U.S. and Massachusetts flags fly at half staff in front of the Hancock building, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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