Cultivating Courage

Overcoming anxiety, neuroticism, and the fear of fear itself

What the Tucson shooting (and similar acts of violence) says about the rest of us

The Tucson shooting will demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit.

My wife, 11 year-old daughter and 7 year-old son and I were driving home from a day of skiing on Jan 8th when we heard on NPR of the Tucson shooting. Needless to say, we were saddened and repulsed by this senseless act of violence. My heart goes out to Gabrielle Giffords, those killed in the shooting and their loved ones. There has been much written since the shooting about the man arrested for the shooting - Jared Loughner - and about the possible role that bitter partisan rhetoric may have played. I have never met Loughner and am not a political expert so I will steer clear of those topics. Rather I want to make this a brief post about an aspect of the shooting that has received less commentary - what does the Tucson shooting (and similar acts of violence) say about the rest of us?

Perhaps a better title for this post would be what will the Tucson shooting say about the rest of us? I use the future tense here because at this point I just have a prediction and only time will tell if my prediction will be borne out. My prediction is that the Tucson shooting is going to reveal the resilience and courageousness of the human spirit. We have already heard several members of Congress give quotes in which they say that they are understandably more concerned in the wake of the shooting but they intend to keep meeting with their constituents just as Giffords was when she was shot. I believe that the past shows us that indeed our representatives in Congress will be resilient and courageous and, in the long run, not make themselves less available to their constituents. Why do I say this? Well, I went on TV for a Chicago newscast on September 12, 2001 and predicted that although I expected a reduction in air travel in response to understandable fear reactions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that history tells us to expect that reduction to be temporary. I am fairly certain that time has proven that prediction correct. Though we all do submit to far more extensive screening procedures at the airports to this day, I am fairly certain that after a several month substantial dip in air travel after 9/11 there has been a substantial recovery in air travel since that time. The basis for my prediction in 2001 was knowledge of the responses of Londoners to the sustained bombing of London by Nazi Germany during World War II. Despite widespread predictions of psychiatrists at the time that the London Blitz would provoke mass panic and result in a massive outbreak of phobias and other psychiatric disorders. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anything much more frightening than undergoing an air raid. Yet, as summarized in Jack Rachman's classic book entitled Fear and Courage, the great majority of Londoners endured the air raids extraordinarily well. Though short-lived fear reactions were common, contrary to the predictions, very few prolonged phobic reactions were observed. One of my mentors, Edna Foa, collected some landmark evidence with Barbara Olasov Rothbaum, David Riggs and other colleagues in the 1990s in which they followed individuals over time who had just experienced a sexual assault or a non-sexual assault. What they found was that most assault survivors showed many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder 1 week after the assault but that many of the survivors showed a natural recovery from these symptoms over the course of the subsequent weeks and months. In other words, what the Foa studies and the experience of Londoners during the Blitz of World War II show us is that people are by and large very resilient and courageous.

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Richard Zinbarg, Ph.D., is a psychology professor and director of the Anxiety and Panic Treatment Program at Northwestern University.

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