Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Why Do People React Differently To Witnessing Catastrophe?

reacting to disasterOnce again a nation, Japan and its people, face devastation, loss and terrifying uncertainty in the aftermath of disaster.

Enabled by ever-expanding technology, people across miles, cultures, religions, races and economies witness the unfolding of unspeakable events. While disaster of this proportion calls forth a universal sense of horror and concern, there are differences in the way we all react.

What Accounts For These Differences?

While Traumatologists indicate that the characteristics of an event – be it man-made or natural disaster, time-limited or prolonged, life threatening or catastrophic- mediate the impact of a traumatic event on people, they hold that the most crucial factor in determining a person’s response  is the meaning of the event for that person.

The Subjective Meaning of an Event

Trauma researcher, Rachel Yehuda, suggests it is the subjective interpretation of an event that largely determines whether that event is traumatic to a person. What a person thinks about the event–including why it happened and what could have been done differently–affects the response to trauma. If a person believes it is a man-made attempt to harm them, they will have a different reaction than if they perceive the event as an unavoidable accident. If they believe an earthquake is punishment from God as opposed to a devastating natural occurrence – their reaction will be quite different.

The subjective meaning of an event is determined by a number of parameters:

Proximity plays a part in the meaning of the event for a person and increases the likelihood of a person’s traumatic stress response.

  • Proximity can include actual geographical proximity as being in those areas in Japan directly hit by the tsunami such that one’s life was threatened or in areas near nuclear plants which necessitated evacuation and for which there is now a fear of contamination by radiation.
  • Proximity can mean emotional proximity such that although not geographically in the disaster zone, one’s child or loved one is there, has been killed there or is missing.
  • Proximity can mean media proximity such that there is a bombardment of repeated scenes and information that one is unable to moderate  because the person is not in control of  the information flow ( elderly or children)  or there is an inability to “ stop viewing”  driven by and escalating the sympathetic arousal associated with stress.


  • The personal interpretation and impact of a traumatic event is influenced by a person’s history. Viewing from miles away, there are some who will witness the horror and try to mediate their reaction with the thought that “It could never happen here.”
  • There are some standing not far from them who will read about and view the same traumatic event and resonate with an emotional and physical experience of trauma because for them -“It has already happened.”
  • Regardless of the nature of the trauma, Bessel van der Kolk suggests that once we have experienced a traumatic event for which our body has had a persistent traumatic response “our body keeps score.”  In the face of an unspeakable event, a very sensitive neurophysiological smoke detector goes off in our brain and sets in motion the brain and body’s reactions to stress. It may not persist, but we know that place and that feeling.
  • Psychologist, Robert Stolorow, trying to make sense of the sudden death of a young wife, suggests that we react differently after we have experienced a personally traumatic event because its shatters the absolutisms of our existence – that we are safe, that life is predictable, that those we love will be there. He suggests that trauma is a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters our sense of being in the world.
  • Déjà vu – For some, miles and years collapse as they witness an event painfully similar to a traumatic event they have suffered. For earthquake victims in Haiti, China, and Italy etc. the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and unfolding loss are emotionally and traumatically very close. Given how many in those countries still suffer without having moved beyond grief and loss, this catastrophe is a re-experiencing of their own pain as well as an opportunity for exquisite compassion and understanding.


One common factor that mediates a person’s experience of a traumatic event is the experience of connection with others. From the acute to the long term stages of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, in the case of children or Military Special Forces, people find safety and a place to emotionally recover in the company of others.

Trauma specialists tell us that in the face of natural disaster, or traumatic loss, the family is the first-line resource for helping children make sense of what is happening, moderate exposure to images of trauma and feel safety in connection with those who love and care for them. The child who feels held feels less traumatized.

Ørner and Schnyder studying early intervention after trauma across cultures recommend that after satisfaction of primary needs of safety, shelter and nourishment – what is most important in reducing the impact of trauma is helping survivors draw upon and connect with natural networks of family and friends- more important than any professional intervention.

When asked about Trauma and Human Existence and how we find any type of safety given the existential terror of war, natural disaster and catastrophe, Robert Stolorow recommends that we accept that we are brothers in darkness – that across cultures we must reach to find a relational home for terror.

Further Reading:

Ørner & Schnyder (2003) Reconstructing Early Intervention after Trauma: Innovations in the Care of Survivors. UK: Oxford University Press.

Photo by Nasa Goddard, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.