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How the brain processes trauma and why support, altruism can ease fear

The traumatic events at yesterday's Boston Marathon have many of us bracing ourselves for what might be coming next. And, as explained in a Healthland piece, this feeling of being on high alert is a result of how our brain processes traumatic experiences.

As writer Maia Szalavitz explains, "when the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses." While this behavior is important to our survival, it can be be harmful to our health if it persists after the threat has passed. So what can we do to help each other heal from the tragedy and reduce the risk of those most affected from developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Szalavitz writes:

Fortunately, our brains are designed to modulate fear responses and at least 80% of people exposed to a severe traumatic event will not develop PTSD. Studies show that the more support, altruism and connection people share, the lower the risk for the disorder and the easier the recovery. Because such interactions aren’t always easy in the immediate aftermath of a harrowing experience, Hollander is investigating whether medications based on oxytocin— a hormone linked with love and parent/child bonding— might help to ease this connection.

If fear short circuits the brain’s normally logical and reasoned thinking, social support may be important in rerouting those networks back to their normal state. Which is why the selflessness and altruism we see in the wake of terror attacks is often the key to helping us to process and overcome the shock of living through them.

Szalavitz's message of using compassion to combat fear was echoed in this TED blog post, which encourages people to "look for the helpers" as we process what happened yesterday, and in Mashable's list of touching acts of kindness at the marathon.

Previously: Can social media improve the mental health of disaster survivors?, Grieving on Facebook: A personal story and 9/11: Grieving in the age of social media
Photo by Alex E. Proimos

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