Health & Medicine

Surprising finding on resilience of 9/11 survivors

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Crowd gathers at 9/11 Memorial Service in Lower Manhattan, WTC, New York. (Photo: Flickr user PaulS)

Story by Rhitu Chatterjee, PRI's The World. Listen to audio above for full report.

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Sandro Galea, a public health professor at Columbia University, was one of the first scientists to study the psychological impact of 9/11 on New Yorkers. Early on, he made a surprising finding.

While most New Yorkers were understandably anxious in the days after the terrorist attacks, only a minority went on to develop debilitating psychological problems like post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Even among people who were in the towers and who were trying to escape or got injured, the risk of PTSD was still in the minority,” says Galea.

He says it was an “aha” moment for him.

“Human beings are incredibly adaptive and incredibly resilient,” he says. “Even in the face of a dramatic trauma, with horrendous circumstances, most people are still pulling through fine.”

By “pulling through fine,” Galea does not mean that people were not upset. Rather, they were able to function normally even if they had periods of great sadness.

Galea wanted to know: was this resilience unique to New Yorkers, or was it a more general human trait?

So he approached a colleague who had studied the psychological impacts of a devastating flood in Mexico. Torrential rains in 1999 killed more than 400 people and displaced over 200,000.

“Even in the flood sample, where the vast majority of participants are people who had lost homes or lost loved ones, it was still nearly half who qualified as being resilient,” says Galea.

Psychologists are just beginning to understand what makes some people resilient and others vulnerable.

Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno has spent years studying the factors that influence human resilience.

“There are some factors that are inherent in people – their personality and the way they cope – that does tend to make some people more resilient than others,” he says.

Genetics may influence resilience. Also, men tend to be more psychologically resilient than women, although it is not clear why.

Read the rest of this story on The World website.

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