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For the living cell and for the organism as a whole life is one catastrophe after another.  - Scientific American, March 1976, pp 60D-61

By Daniel Goleman

IN a major catastrophe like the Mexican earthquake and the mud slides in Colombia, experts say, the psychological world collapses just as resoundingly as the physical one.

The most prominent psychological casualty is the sense of invulnerability with which most people manage to face the risks of daily life. Also shattered, psychologists are finding, are a person's sense that his or her world is comprehensible and has meaning, and for many years after the trauma a person's very sense of worth may be damaged.

''The common belief that people recover after a few weeks from disaster is based on mistaking denial for recovery,'' said Dr. Mardi Horowitz, a psychiatrist at the University of California medical school at San Francisco.

Delayed Psychological Reactions

Dr. Horowitz's research has shown that many psychological symptoms do not appear until long after the victim seems to have fully recovered from the disaster, and when the problems do arise - such as difficulty concentrating, depression or sleeplessness - their causes may go unrecognized.

The study of the psychological impact of trauma of all sorts has become a major topic for researchers. While psychoanalytic theories have dealt in the main with the devastating effects of emotional trauma in early childhood, the new work examines the emotional aftershocks of disasters of every sort.

As psychologists and psychiatrists assess the impact of catastrophes large and small, they are finding that the worst natural disaster holds something in common in its psychic impact with what may seem a minor crisis, such as a witnessing a brutal crime. And they find, for example, that children come to grips with disaster in ways that are very different from those of adults. Moreover, the evidence is that rescuers and even bystanders also can be vulnerable to psychological costs.

Basic Assumptions Crumble

''Whenever someone becomes victimized by a disaster, whatever its nature,'' said Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, ''their most basic assumptions about themselves and the world are undermined. Psychological recovery, to a large extent, requires rebuilding those assumptions.''

The key assumption that crumbles in a disaster, according to Dr. Janoff-Bulman, is that of invulnerability, the sense that the world is benevolent, controllable and fair, and that so long as one acts as one should, nothing untoward will happen. ''The assumption of invulnerability begins very early in life, as early as the first two or three years of age,'' Dr. Janoff-Bulman said in an interview. ''That is when the child forms a sense of basic trust, the feeling that the world is a predictable place in which good things will come to you. And from that the child comes to see himself as worthy of that kind of care. These beliefs are at the core of a person's most basic sense of himself and the world.''

''A catastrophe attacks those deeply held beliefs,'' Dr. Janoff-Bulman said. ''Suddenly all the world seems malevolent. And because the two beliefs are so intimately linked, you lose not only your sense that the world is safe for you, but that you are worthy of that safety.''

People who have suffered catastrophes afterward may undergo a diminished sense of self-worth for 10 or 15 years, or even longer, Dr. Janoff-Bulman has found in her research. ''When you've been victimized,'' she said, ''it leads you to ask, 'Why me?' You may start looking at yourself to find something in you to blame it on, to justify and make some sense out of such a horrible fate. That leads you to highlight the negative aspects of yourself, which lowers your self-esteem.''

Some research suggests that the more benevolent a person had assumed the setting of a disaster to be, the worse its psychological impact can be. A study at the University of Illinois found that women who had been raped in settings they once thought were safe were more fearful in general afterward than were women who had been raped in dangerous settings.

Effects on Children

Children vary in their reactions depending on their age, according to research by two psychiatrists, Dr. Robert Pynoos of the University of California at Los Angeles and Dr. Spencer Eth of the University of Southern California, who have studied children who witnessed brutal crimes. The severest impact is on the youngest children, those of preschool age. ''They feel the most helpless and passive when confronted by overwhelming danger, and require the most assistance to re-establish psychic equilibrium,'' Dr. Pynoos and Dr. Eth wrote in an article in ''Trauma and Its Wake'' (Bruner/Mazel).

Young children in severe danger often react by a mute, stunned withdrawal; one 3-year-old sat next to her murdered mother for eight hours until a roommate discovered them. After the disaster has passed, preschool age children often regress, acting like an anxious younger child, whining, clinging or throwing tantrums. Children at this age are most likely to dwell on the fantasy that the tragedy has not occurred, and that everything is magically all right.

Children of school age, on the other hand, have a much broader repertory of responses. Some children at this age will spend an inordinate time retelling the traumatic incident in detail, but with a lack of emotion. Others will become fixated in a state of constant guardedness, as though braced for danger at any moment.

Aware of the irreversiblity of death, they are less prone than the younger child to dwell incessantly on the fantasy that a dead loved one will return. But children of this age will often re-enact the tragedy in fantasy, imagining themselves as having rescued the victim, according to Dr. Pynoos and Dr. Eth.

Teen-agers, they write, tend to resemble adults in reacting to disaster. One common reaction is a premature entrance to adulthood, a false sense of readiness to take on adult responsibilities. Teen-agers are also prone to respond with rebelliousness, such as truancy and sexual adventures, all out of keeping with their personality before the trauma. Dr. Pynoos and Dr. Eth note that teen-agers are much more realistic in their understanding of the event itself than are the younger children, who sometimes blame themselves for the disaster. Teen-agers, on the other hand, while they can accurately assess how little their own acts may have figured into the chain of events, may still inflate their guilt feelings at having survived, as many adults do.

Symptoms Arise in 'Shell Shock'

Such variations in the impact of disaster must be seen against the broader background of the normal progression of psychological responses, which have been recognized for centuries. When the diarist Samuel Pepys described his reactions to the Great Fire of London, which destroyed much of the city in 1666, his account followed what psychologists have come to see as a classic pattern: disbelief followed by a forgetfulness of the disaster, insomnia, disturbing dreams and extreme anxiety.

Similar symptoms are commonly observed among the ''shell shock'' victims of the wars. The pattern, now called the ''post-traumatic stress syndrome,'' includes recurrent dreams of the traumatic event, the numbing of emotions, and guilt about having survived when others have not.

While there is no prescribed sequence for psychological recovery from disaster, experts recognize specific stages that oscillate in ways that can differ from person to person. Some of the most detailed research on the emotional aftermath of disaster is described by Dr. Horowitz in his book ''Stress Response Syndromes,'' published by Jason Aronson.

Normal Recovery Process

The normal immediate response to a severe trauma, Dr. Horowitz says, is an outcry of fear, rage or sadness at the terrible impact on one's life, which is often followed closely by a state of dazed shock. That shock is the beginning of a psychological denial of the tragedy, a denial that seems to serve a positive purpose in allowing the person to come to grips with his shattered world at a rate he can manage. For weeks or even years after the event, denial - blocking the facts from awareness - oscillates with intrusive thoughts of the tragedy, as the person slowly comes to face its full emotional truth.

When that process of adjustment goes awry, though, a variety of more severe problems can arise, according to Dr. Horowitz. For example, the immediate impact of the disaster may be overwhelming, leaving the person emotionally swamped. If the initial reaction of, say, distress and fear is not relieved, the person may sink into a state of total exhaustion or the feelings may escalate into outright panic.

During the longer course of recovery, Dr. Horowitz has found, people may either fall prey to extremes of denial or to being emotionally flooded by thoughts of the event. Extreme denial can take many forms, including a general numbing of emotions, serious loss of the ability to concentrate or to follow a train of thought, or an avoidance of topics even vaguely associated with the event. On the other hand, when memories of the event intrude too much, it can take such forms as an excessive alertness of dangers that do not exist, sudden waves of uncontrollable emotion, bad dreams or constant rumination on the event that cannot be put out of mind.

When the psychological process of coming to grips with the event goes uncompleted, Dr. Horowitz notes, the dangers can be more subtle, sometimes taking the form of psychosomatic complaints like stomach problems, headaches or inability to work or to love. When the recovery process goes awry in these ways, Dr. Horowitz notes, psychotherapy that deals with the original trauma is called for, even years later.

''The sudden emergence of fears or nightmares long after the tragedy has passed usually surprises everyone else, who thought the person had already recovered,'' Dr. Horowitz said. A recent report in The American Journal of Psychiatry tells of a World War II veteran who had no post-war problems until, 40 years later, he became haunted by a repeated nightmare of an incident from the last days of the war. In that encounter, he had shot German soldiers who turned out to be teen-age boys in uniforms with imitation rifles; in the dream they appeared as his own grandson.

Witnesses Affected as Well

Witnesses to a disaster can be as profoundly affected as the victims. One risk to bystanders or unseasoned rescue workers at the scene of a disaster is from encountering a dead and mangled body, according to Dr. Horowitz, who said, ''The sight can leave a person with a profound death fright, feeling that life has no meaning, or severly depressed if they are prone to it.''

To be sure, disasters can bring out the best in people, who put aside fear and self-concern to rally to the needs of the moment. ''Even though people may be dazed,'' Dr. Horowitz said, ''most function enormously well during the emergency itself, especially in direct response to seeing someone in pain or need.''


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