Traumatic events trigger diverse responses

New study compares difficulties faced by survivors of life-threatening events

BOSTON — New investigations are beginning to untangle the many reactions that people have to the worst kinds of traumatic experiences, George Bonanno of Columbia University reported on May 28 at the Association for Psychological Science annual convention.

Between 35 percent and 65 percent of people who survive a life-threatening incident or some other distressing event exhibit few or no emotional difficulties over the next two years, Bonanno said. Another 15 percent to 25 percent display psychological problems that gradually get better in that time. Up to 15 percent develop lasting emotional troubles after a delay of several months. And 5 percent to 30 percent immediately develop serious emotional symptoms that don’t improve. Many of these individuals qualify for post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric condition that includes intrusive memories of an ordeal, emotional numbness and startle reactions.

In recent studies, Bonanno and his colleagues noted this general pattern of trauma responses in Hong Kong residents hospitalized and kept isolated following diagnoses of severe acute respiratory infection; people who survived emergency surgery following serious accidents; women who survived breast cancer surgery; and U.S. soldiers returned from combat deployments to the Middle East.

Some soldiers display emotional stress shortly before deployment, but the stress declines after they return from war. This phenomenon is poorly understood, Bonanno said.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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