In Brief

There's no "right" or "wrong" way someone should respond to the trauma of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, or the man-made destruction of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks-just different ways.

That was the message psychologist and trauma researcher Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, delivered to the House Committee on Science Subcommittee on Research during a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., in November. And above all, a person doesn't have to directly experience a national traumatic event to be psychologically affected by it.

Silver said that public misconceptions about how people are supposed to respond to traumatic events-often fed by newspaper stories and television news segments listing "Coping Do's and Don'ts,"- often stand in sharp contrast to what research shows about how they actually react.

"After conducting studies on literally thousands of participants across a wide variety of victimizations, one conclusion I can draw about how people respond to traumatic life events is that there is no one, universal response," Silver told committee members. "Some people will express less distress than outsiders might expect, and others will respond with prolonged distress far longer than might have been judged 'normal' under the circumstances."

A professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, Silver served as principal investigator for a three-year, National Science Foundation-funded national study of how people have responded to Sept. 11.

Silver said it's important for the public to understand how people respond to traumatic events because misconceptions about how people cope can be "devastating" to a trauma victim, Silver said.

"It can lead to a self-perception that one isn't coping appropriately, that one is going crazy, and can also lead to ineffective support provision by members of one's social network," she said.

The hearing presented legislators with information about how social science research can help people cope with terrorism and natural disaster, and assist emergency management experts in planning evacuation efforts, and response and recovery programs once a catastrophe occurs.

More long-term research is needed on how people cope with trauma, both to overcome public misconceptions and help trauma victims recover, Silver said.

"As a nation, we have an opportunity to draw lessons from these losses, so that they make us stronger, more flexible, and more effective in providing support," she said.

- C. Munsey