The terror attacks in San Bernardino and Paris have ratcheted upward—once again—our collective anxieties. And for the survivors of these tragedies, they have raised the specter of collateral psychological damage, such as posttraumatic stress disorder. Although the risks to survivors are indeed real, the psychological impact of these tragedies is more complicated than we realize. Most survivors of traumatic events will suffer no enduring psychological harm. More startlingly, some may actually experience direct psychological benefits from it.
How do we know this? In a study just published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues, Heather Littleton and Amie Grills, and I studied 368 female survivors of the Virginia Tech campus shootings, the most deadly civilian massacre in U.S. history. These students’ anxiety and depression had been measured before the shootings as part of a separate study and again at two, six, and 12 months after them. As a result, we had a rare window into their psychological reaction to the tragedy.
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