Supersurvivors

The research behind post-traumatic growth.

Could the Recent Airline Disasters Cause Us All PTSD?

Vicarious trauma and the ripple effects of tragedies

(co-written with Lee Daniel Kravetz)

Over the past week, the world’s skies have brought us two major tragedies.  People watched in horror on July 17 as a Malaysian airliner was shot down from the skies of eastern Ukraine.  Though the details are still unclear regarding what exactly happened and why, people across the globe are mourning the losses of their family and friends.  Among the 298 passengers and crewmembers killed in the incident were nationals of the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, the UK, and the United states, making this tragedy truly global in scope. Then, yet another tragedy struck Wednesday as TransAsia’s flight GE222 crashed while attempting to land on Taiwan's Penghu archipelago.

As the world continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding these events, loved ones of the victims embark upon a fraught emotional journey.  According to research, sudden losses of this kind can trigger more than grief--they can literally be traumatic, in some cases bringing about symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. 

We're all familiar with PTSD, a painful and often debilitating condition involving trauma-induced nightmares and intense emotional distress, among other symptoms.  But, we tend to associate it with soldiers returning from war zones.  It may be surprising to learn that, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic guidebook, PTSD also can be caused by what's sometimes called “vicarious trauma”. It can be caused indirectly, by learning that a close relative or friend was exposed to a trauma.

In addition, events like these recent airline disasters put close family members and friends at risk for Persistent Complex Bereavement, sometimes called simply “complicated grief”, another condition that can look a lot like PTSD.  The reason for the increased risk of these conditions is the simple yet painful reality that these losses are not typical ones.  In the case of the Malaysian airliner, for instance, the missile attack was sudden and perpetrated by others, making it as much a trauma as a loss.

But the ripple effects may not stop there.  If your initial reaction to hearing the news of either of these tragedies was a sense of dread, loss, or even anger, you weren’t alone. Curiously, vicarious trauma also may affect people who have absolutely no direct connection to the event. Though this isn’t the same as having PTSD, people who don’t know any of the victims may still suffer from significant stress.  As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, researchers surveyed a representative sample of over 500 Americans.  A total of 44 percent of those surveyed reported one or more symptoms of stress to a substantial degree, and a full 90 percent had one or more symptoms to at least some degree.

From 9/11 to the Malaysian airline tragedy, and now to Wednesday’s crash of TransAsia flight GE222, we see time and again that these horrors fuel emotions ranging from sadness and grief to resentment and even anger in people who were not directly involved in the events. We hurt for our fellow human beings and their families.  In a way, we also suffer as though we’ve been victims, and as though we ourselves have survived something horrible.

----  David B. Feldman, PhD, and Lee Daniel Kravetz are the authors of the new book, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, just released by HarperCollins/HarperWave.  For more information, visit www.supersurvivors.com, or www.facebook.com/SupersurvivorsTheBook.

David B. Feldman, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University.

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