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When our brain is grieving

When tragedy strikes, some of us never recover from it, while others get over hardship quickly without any permanent psychological damage. Why is that? 

There are many types of tragedies that can occur in a person’s life: Whether it is an illness or the death of a loved one, terror attacks, or natural disasters – the way we cope with these situations differ greatly. Some people immediately fall into a deep depression, some only start to grief months after the tragedy happened, and others never manage to recover from the psychological effects they endure. And then there are those who seem to be able to go back to normal after only a short amount of time without any signs of long-term repercussions. Why do people react so differently to something so fatal?

The four different types

This is exactly what the scientist George Bonanno wanted to know [1]. His intention was to look at people who had experienced a tragic event and find out whether they were dealing with it differently. He had to make sure to find people who had all endured a similar misfortune as only then he could guarantee a non-biased comparison between them. He therefore decided to examine people who had experienced the 9/11 terror attacks from up close, e.g. had lost a loved one. He interviewed and examined them for a period of two years and came to the result that there are four different types when getting over a traumatic experience: 

1. The chronic type (29 percent of participants): This type of crisis management is characterized by permanent psychological or emotional damage resulting from a tragic event. This group shows substantial stress even two years after experiencing a tragedy. 

2. The healed type (23 percent of participants): People of this group seemed to have had recovered from their initial symptoms that were caused by the traumatic experience (in this case the 9/11 attacks) within two years.

3. The delayed type (13 percent of participants): The delayed type didn’t experience any significant symptoms at first. After some time, however, certain symptoms started to occur, hence the term ‘delayed type’. The time span between the attacks and people experiencing first symptoms ranges from a few days up to several months.

4. The resilient type (35 percent of participants): It may sound surprising but most participants belonged to the so-called ‘resilient group’. Psychologists use the term ‘resilience’ here to express a certain psychological resisting power, which provides people with the necessary tools to cope with catastrophic tragedies. Therefore and astonishingly enough, this group only suffered from minor symptoms or even no symptoms at all after witnessing the horrific 9/11 terror attacks.                      

But what is the deciding factor that determines whether a person experiences painful symptoms (type 1 to 3) or gets over tragedies quickly (type 4)? It seems that the so-called ‘amygdala’ in the brain is a key deciding factor here. The amygdala is responsible for our assessment of our surroundings, meaning that it scans our surroundings for potential dangers and puts the body in alarm mode if any dangers are found. This is of course very helpful as it protects us from danger around. But the amygdala can also be oversensitive and detect danger in harmless surroundings and ring the alarm even if there is no danger around. People with a highly sensitive amygdala are therefore at higher risk to suffer from severe symptoms after a traumatic event.  

Close friendships can help

Friendships are key in helping to cope with tragediesThe way we perceive our surroundings also largely depends on our social relationships. People who have an active social life, filled with family, friends, and colleagues, generally suffer less from traumatic events. On the other hand, people who don’t have many social ties are prone to feeling more lonely and therefore often perceive their surroundings as hostile towards them [2]. Their amygdala is already put under a lot of constant strain as it is; going through a traumatic experience on top of that, often completely pulls the rug out from under their feet. Social relationships generally help to provide support in such dark hours. 

In general, however, it can be said that most people can cope with tragic events surprisingly well. What helps in these cases are social ties that help us to on the one hand, see our surroundings in a more favourable light and as less threatening. This also makes us feel more stable and less vulnerable to be completely knocked out when tragedy strikes. On the other hand, these relationships are our support system – especially when we need them the most in our worst hours. 

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1: Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely adverse events? American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.

2: Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Annuals of Behavioral Medicine.

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