Trauma can be GOOD for you, says psychologist who helped survivors of the Zeebrugge disaster
Many of the survivors of the Zeebrugge disaster talked about positive changes in their lives
On Friday, March 6, 1987, a large ferry called the Herald Of Free Enterprise left the port of Zeebrugge, Belgium, bound for England.
Nearly 500 passengers and 80 crew were on board.
Passengers were settling into their seats, queueing at the restaurants and the bar. Below, water was flooding on to the car decks because a bow door had not been secured.
No one noticed anything was wrong
until the ship attempted to turn. There was a lurch. Then, within 45
seconds, the ship rolled over.
People crashed into walls and slipped under the ice-cold water as portholes imploded and water flooded the passenger areas.
Surrounded by dead bodies, many expected to die.
also witnessed unimaginable horrors and lost loved ones.
In one of the
most horrific peacetime maritime disasters of the 20th century, 193
A few months
later, lawyers acting for the survivors and bereaved contacted the
psychology department at the Institute of Psychiatry in London to ask
That’s how I
became involved. For the next three years, my study for a doctorate in
psychology was devoted to investigating the survivors and impediments to
recovery that they faced.
following the disaster, levels of psychological distress were high and
many survivors met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), including recurrent, distressing memories, upsetting dreams and
emotional numbness, difficulty with sleep and concentration, and a
constant feeling of being on edge.
Not surprisingly, many of the survivors surveyed struggled to cope, and found their work and relationships were affected.
Three years later, we carried out a follow-up survey. The survivors’ average level of psychological distress was now lower, though many were still struggling.
Yet, during the research, something unexpected happened. I noticed many of the survivors also talked about positive changes in their lives. The trauma had left them with a new outlook, containing a mix of negative and positive.
To explore this, my colleagues and I added a new question to our survey: ‘Has your view of life changed since the disaster — and, if so, has it changed in a positive way or a negative way’
Disasters similar to the 7/7 bombings have led to remarkable changes in survivors. People grow because of the pain of emotional struggle
The results were a shock. Although 46 per cent said their view of life had changed for the worse, 43 per cent said it had changed for the better. I had expected only some survivors to say: ‘For the better.’
I started to look at the positive side of trauma. When I talked to colleagues about this, I was met with blank looks. Some argued there is nothing positive about trauma.
And there isn’t. But in the struggle to deal with what has happened, positive change can arise.
Most of us know we don’t live life as wisely, responsibly, compassionately and maturely as we could. Trauma is like a wake-up call for us to reflect on this.
But this idea of life-enhancing experiences after personal tragedies goes against the grain of psychological textbooks, which say that devastating events often trigger mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or even PTSD.
A booming industry has grown up to support those who have had psychological trauma, with an army of counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers.
Yet, over the past few years, I began to ask questions about the trauma industry. I realised our understanding of how people adapt following adversity has become focused only on the negative.
Think, for example, of U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong. He overcame testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times in a row.
In his autobiography, he revealed how cancer changed his life.
‘The truth is that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,’ he wrote.
‘I don’t know why I got the illness, but it did wonders for me, and I wouldn’t want to walk away from it. Why would I want to change, even for a day, the most important and shaping event of my life’
His story seems to vindicate the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum: ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’
'I don't know why I got the illness (testicular cancer), but it did wonders for me, and I wouldn't want to walk away from it,' said Lance Armstrong
Adversity often propels people to become more true to themselves, to take on new challenges and view life from a wider perspective.
Researchers have estimated 75 per cent of all people experience some form of trauma, such as the loss or suffering of a loved one, the diagnosis of an illness, the pain of divorce or separation, or the shock of an accident.
Studies show around a fifth of all people are likely to experience a potentially traumatic event within a given year.
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