Tragedy first brings us together.  Later it risks pulling us apart.

In her NPR piece reporter Alix Spiegel talked to social psychology professor Jeff Greenberg at the University of Arizona about his research on our conscious and unconscious reactions to large-scale trauma.  He noted there are immediate and delayed responses to events that make us confront our mortality.

We have developed defense mechanisms to keep thoughts of death out of our conscious minds so that we can focus on goals, relationships and the tasks of life.  A preoccupation with death is one of the symptoms of depression.  A tragedy such as the bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon breaks through our natural, healthy defenses against anxious awareness of the fragility of life.  I think of healthy defense mechanisms  as psychological immunity.  The reality of death becomes apparent in a way that moments before was held at bay by our psychological immune system.

Our immediate response to death is to come together.

  • We rally around victims
  • We support one another
  • We talk to our children
  • We search for causes
  • We lionize first responders
  • We count our blessings

According to Dr. Greenberg, this lasts for several months.  With the passing of time, the worries about safety and death are no longer very conscious, but more a memory.  However, just below the surface, unconsciously, we are preoccupied.  Dr. Greenberg’s research shows that, at this stage, people tend to redouble their investment in their belief systems and become more antagonistic toward others whose belief systems are different.  Our unconscious vulnerability gets transformed into behaviors that make us feel safe, and a primary way people feel safe is to more earnestly attach themselves to their group, their tribe.  An “us versus them” mentality forms; Dr. Greenberg observes this in post 9/11 America.

Our sense of vulnerability lingers just below the surface for some time.  For those who have experienced abuse, danger, neglect or other childhood trauma, the lingering anxiety may persist for years.