Trauma brings us closer

February 7, 2012 5:45 AM

Nick Marinello

You’re riding in an elevator when it shudders for a couple of seconds. If there is another passenger in that elevator, chances are you will look into each other’s eyes and exchange a silent communication: What just happened? Are you afraid? Should I worry? Sharing traumatic experiences is one way we deal with the burden that trauma places on us, says Charles Figley, director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute.


Faith, hope and love are powerful antidotes to fear and uncertainty, says Charles Figley, director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute in the School of Social Work. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

And it doesn’t matter if that trauma is experienced in an elevator, on a field of combat or in our neighborhood during a spate of crimes.

“There’s a concept in social psychology called ‘broaden and build’ that suggests we are motivated to make connections and build social capital and relationships for our mutual protection and betterment,” says Figley, who holds the Dr. Paul Henry Kurzweg Distinguished Chair and is professor of disaster mental health in the School of Social Work.

Making such connections can help confirm our experiences and affirm how we feel about them.

And yet, how an individual copes with anxiety-producing events such as the current uptick in crime being experienced in many New Orleans neighborhoods is “unbelievably subjective,” he says.

“Other people help through this sense of shared trauma, but eventually it comes down to you own perception of safety and welfare,” says Figley.

How we respond to an event that challenges our sense of safety and self will largely be determined by how we answer the following questions, he says:

• What happened?

• Why did it happen?

• Why did I respond to it the way I did?

• Why am I acting the way I am since it happened?

• Will I be able to cope if it happens again?

“If one is able to address those five questions to at least his or her initial satisfaction, they will be able to move on and cope and live their life,” says Figley. “If not, they will fret and monitor and not feel safe.”


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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000