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Friday, May 6, 2011

How Do Our Brains Process Traumas Such as 9/11?

Research shows that PTSD has complex mind-body effects. Brain scans of people with PTSD show a characteristic pattern of activity in emotion & memory centers, including the anterior cingulate gyrus, the basal ganglia, and  the thalamus. Even if a person does not end up with PTSD,  memories of traumatic events appear to be processed differently by the brain, compared to other life events.

Theories of trauma (e.g., Janoff-Bulman) suggest that events such as 9/11 disrupt our fundamental assumptions about the world:
  • Benevolence of the World - the world is kind & caring & people generally have good intentions and don't intentionally harm others.
  • Meaningfulness of the World - life makes sense and there is an underlying meaning to it all.
  • Fairness & Justice - People generally get what they deserve. Good things come to good people
When these beliefs are violated, people feel anxious and look for a way to restore them. The memory of the trauma may not fit with previous beliefs and is fear-provoking, so we repeat it over and over in our minds. It stays in active memory and cannot easily be filed away. People may avoid reminders of the event or strong emotions so as not to re-evoke the trauma. In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, these intrusive thoughts and avoidance behaviors continue for long periods & are accompanied by intense anxiety, deprssion and functional disability.

The mission to kill Osama Bin Laden may help the families of 9/11 to heal because, according to our Western moral code, the death was deserved and justice was done. The heroic and unselfish actions of the Navy SEALs, and the President reaching out may help them believe that the world is benevolent. The world may seem meaningful again in that bad deeds don't go unpunished. People may feel a sense of national pride, protection, and safety.  Of course, if somebody believes that killing is never justified or has some other type of conflicting belief, they may struggle more with the meaning of this event and have to find a way to come to terms with it. 

Regardless of the type of trauma, when people reach out and give help and support to victims, this will help psychological recovery. Vietnam Veterans have the highest rates of PTSD because they did not feel that the America of the 1970's supported what they did or appreciated their sacrifices. As a nation, we have learned our lesson and now we honor our troops for their service, regardless of whether we believe in the war. 

For more information, check my Psychology Today post below.

What effect does Osama's death have on 9/11 trauma narratives
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