I read again today that yet another bad thing has happened to good people and that counselling is to be made available for the victims. My Dad, who is in his 80s and who has experienced great depression, world war, cold war, two teenage sons, and my mother’s wrath following his being five minutes late for the evening meal, rolls his eyes. Why don’t they just get over it, he asks.
His hero in getting over it happens to be Viktor Frankl who survived both Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, emigrated to the US, went on to have happy and successful life, and who wrote about it all in Man’s Search for Meaning. “If Viktor can get over Auschwitz and Dachau, I can get over your mother’s wrath,” he would say.
Perhaps the London Tube bombings are the most visible of bad things happening to good people lately and I have found it fascinating that the grief industry has been much more subdued compared to its market success in the United States post 9/11. Something to do with the British stiff upper lip? And if that is so, is it temporary state of affairs, and when will the suppressed emotions begin to surface?
In the aftermath of September 11, New Yorkers came to sense mild feeling of dread on sunny, still autumn days. Bank tellers have similar feelings during the quiet of bank after the doors are closed for trading, because everything goes quiet during robbery.
New Yorkers, bank tellers and Londoners alike can no more stop the formation of memory laced with fear than my Dad could prevent World War Two. It’s just the way the brain works in response to an horrific event. But despite having the event and fear connection made for both New Yorkers and Londoners, Londoners appear to have picked themselves up and moved on.
Maybe their culture tells them that every time we re-create an event in our imagination, our brain treats it as fearful stimulus for the first time and invokes all the physiology for flight or fight. Maybe their culture tells them that every time it is re-lived, the fear connection is made stronger and more permanent. Maybe their culture tells them that “working an issue through” is counterproductive.
Although at first it appears to run counter to our emphasis on “closure”, it seems that recovery back to normal life will occur more rapidly if we block thoughts of trauma rather than relive them.
This is not popular assertion. Conventional advice is that following stressful event, “intrusive memories” need to be acknowledged, confronted and worked through, in order to set them to rest for the long term. Events that we need to confront come to mind with force that is hard to ignore.
My Dad would have said that you reap what you sow. As psychologist interested in how the brain works, I would put it similarly, suggesting that if you expect your brain to work in certain ways you will rarely be disappointed. ‘Confronting’, ‘acknowledging’, and ‘working through’ are all parts of mental model based on supposition about how the brain works. It’s time to replace that supposition with good science based on how the brain actually works.
There is no science to support the idea that Londoners’ suppressed emotions will inevitably surface, only mental model whose subscribers make it inevitable. Similarly, the beliefs we hold about stressful events at work, are to large extent self fulfilling and follow the mental models we have adopted.
If we have certain expectations of trauma recovery and stress reactions, then we can expect to have recovery paths and action paths consistent with our models and expectations. Maybe the difference between these Londoners and New Yorkers is vested in how they see themselves. After trauma, these Londoners focus on resilience and the New Yorkers on stress; the Londoners on the future, the New Yorkers on the past; the Londoners on hope, the New Yorkers on retribution. And maybe that’s the point my Dad was trying to make.

Allan Baker is registered psychologist. He is publishing book on neuroscience, its implications for resilience, competence and happiness. [email protected]

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