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9/11 Survivors and Witnesses Are Highly Resilient, Teachers College Study Finds

Those Who Have Fared Best Are Often “Self-Enhancers” Who Are Difficult To Get Along With

People who have proven the most personally resilient after experiencing crises such as the attacks on the World Trade Center are more likely to be those who, in day-to-day interactions, are difficult to get along with. So says a study conducted by Dr. George Bonanno, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, and doctoral students Courtney Rennicke and Sharon Decal, published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study, "Self-Enhancement among High-Exposure Survivors of the September 11 th Terrorist Attack: Resilience or Social Maladjustment?" refers to these resilient individuals as self-enhancers.

"Self-enhancers are somewhat grandiose," Dr. Bonanno explains. "They are preoccupied with themselves, they score high on measures of narcissism, and the research shows pretty clearly that they are annoying to be around."

But self-enhancers cope very well with adversity, and studies done prior to this one have shown that they are very resilient in situations such as war or sudden loss. In Dr. Bonnano's study, the researchers were particularly interested in further exploring whether self-enhancing individuals who directly experienced the 9/11 attacks showed genuine resilience or instead exhibited a form of delayed reaction or social maladjustment.

 

Resilience vs. Recovery

Resilience differs from responses typically associated with recovery from trauma in that resilient individuals only experience mild disruptions in functioning while maintaining relatively stable levels of healthy adjustment over time. People recovering from trauma, on the other hand, experience significant disruptions in daily functioning along with specific psychological symptoms. They may struggle with these for months before gradually returning to pre-trauma levels.

Beginning less than six months after the attacks, Dr. Bonnano and his fellow researchers contacted companies that had been housed in the towers to reach participants for the study. Participants ranged in age from 23 to 59 years old. At the time that the first plane hit, about a third were in one of the towers; slightly more than a third were within four blocks of the towers; and the rest were further than four blocks away. More than 70 percent of the total group witnessed death and injury to others.

Researchers interviewed participants at seven and 11 months after the attacks, and at 28 months also interviewed three close friends or relatives about the participants' experiences during and after the attacks. The researchers asked the participants whether they felt they were in physical danger at the time of the attacks, whether they witnessed death or injury, how they would describe their responses and whether they exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Participants also were asked to rate to what degree they felt various emotions such as fear, sadness, happiness, or guilt in speaking about their experiences, as well as their ability to talk to others about personal worries and concerns. Researchers tested them for signs of depression, as well.

Friends and relatives were asked how long and how well they knew the participants; how well the participants adjusted to the attacks "compared to most other people;" and how well the participants had adjusted in comparison to their "usual level." They were given descriptions of possible outcomes for participants to have experienced-from resilience and recovery to delayed or chronic trauma reactions-and asked to choose which outcome most closely matched the experience of the participant.

Results of the study showed that traits of self-enhancement were much more prevalent among participants who exhibited resilience than any other outcome. Self-enhancers also reported fewer initial PTSD symptoms, which remained low over time.

In the interviews conducted seven months after the attacks, participants who were found to be self-enhancers showed significantly greater enjoyment and happiness and overall more positive emotional experiences than average. They also displayed significantly less fear and anger. While this was an expected result of the study, findings did indicate that this association is seen primarily in the early months of coping. Self-enhancers who did not display positive symptoms at the seven-month interview were usually those who felt that they were in high physical danger. Thus, even self-enhancers may have difficulties related to extreme exposure to potentially extreme traumatic events.

Responses of friends and relatives showed that despite having been in or near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, self-enhancers were able to return relatively quickly to their normal levels of feeling and functioning. One interesting finding was that friends and relatives of self-enhancers who experienced high levels of exposure during the attack, such as witnessing deaths and injuries, reported that the self-enhancers seemed to be "less honest" after 18 months.

 

Most New Yorkers Exhibited Resilience

In a related study, Dr. Bonanno and his colleagues looked at a representative sample of 2700 New Yorkers that indicated that only one in four people exhibited Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and half of the remaining people in the study showed signs of resilience.

"We had a dream data set on the entire city-one that almost exactly replicated the 2000 census-and we looked at every different level of exposure, from people who were in the towers, to people who were injured, who lost loved ones and who lost loved ones and saw the planes hit the towers," Bonanno said. "We never found less than a third of the group being resilient, and usually it was about half. So even when you have a lot of PTSD, you still have a lot of resilience."

Those who exhibited the most severe PTSD in that sampling were those who experienced both the loss of a loved one and who personally witnessed the attack on the towers. Of those who were in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, more than half exhibited resilience and only 25 percent exhibited signs of PTSD.

So do these results mean that most New Yorkers are self-enhancers?

"Self-enhancement is not that common," Bonanno says. "So there will be some self-enhancers in New York but not only self-enhancers." Perhaps, he added, it's just that New Yorkers are "tough."

Published Monday, Jun. 20, 2005

9/11 Survivors and Witnesses Are Highly Resilient, Teachers College Study Finds

People who have proven the most personally resilient after experiencing crises such as the attacks on the World Trade Center are more likely to be those who, in day-to-day interactions, are difficult to get along with. So says a study conducted by Dr. George Bonanno, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, and doctoral students Courtney Rennicke and Sharon Decal, published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study, "Self-Enhancement among High-Exposure Survivors of the September 11 th Terrorist Attack: Resilience or Social Maladjustment?" refers to these resilient individuals as self-enhancers.

"Self-enhancers are somewhat grandiose," Dr. Bonanno explains. "They are preoccupied with themselves, they score high on measures of narcissism, and the research shows pretty clearly that they are annoying to be around."

But self-enhancers cope very well with adversity, and studies done prior to this one have shown that they are very resilient in situations such as war or sudden loss. In Dr. Bonnano's study, the researchers were particularly interested in further exploring whether self-enhancing individuals who directly experienced the 9/11 attacks showed genuine resilience or instead exhibited a form of delayed reaction or social maladjustment.

 

Resilience vs. Recovery

Resilience differs from responses typically associated with recovery from trauma in that resilient individuals only experience mild disruptions in functioning while maintaining relatively stable levels of healthy adjustment over time. People recovering from trauma, on the other hand, experience significant disruptions in daily functioning along with specific psychological symptoms. They may struggle with these for months before gradually returning to pre-trauma levels.

Beginning less than six months after the attacks, Dr. Bonnano and his fellow researchers contacted companies that had been housed in the towers to reach participants for the study. Participants ranged in age from 23 to 59 years old. At the time that the first plane hit, about a third were in one of the towers; slightly more than a third were within four blocks of the towers; and the rest were further than four blocks away. More than 70 percent of the total group witnessed death and injury to others.

Researchers interviewed participants at seven and 11 months after the attacks, and at 28 months also interviewed three close friends or relatives about the participants' experiences during and after the attacks. The researchers asked the participants whether they felt they were in physical danger at the time of the attacks, whether they witnessed death or injury, how they would describe their responses and whether they exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Participants also were asked to rate to what degree they felt various emotions such as fear, sadness, happiness, or guilt in speaking about their experiences, as well as their ability to talk to others about personal worries and concerns. Researchers tested them for signs of depression, as well.

Friends and relatives were asked how long and how well they knew the participants; how well the participants adjusted to the attacks "compared to most other people;" and how well the participants had adjusted in comparison to their "usual level." They were given descriptions of possible outcomes for participants to have experienced-from resilience and recovery to delayed or chronic trauma reactions-and asked to choose which outcome most closely matched the experience of the participant.

Results of the study showed that traits of self-enhancement were much more prevalent among participants who exhibited resilience than any other outcome. Self-enhancers also reported fewer initial PTSD symptoms, which remained low over time.

In the interviews conducted seven months after the attacks, participants who were found to be self-enhancers showed significantly greater enjoyment and happiness and overall more positive emotional experiences than average. They also displayed significantly less fear and anger. While this was an expected result of the study, findings did indicate that this association is seen primarily in the early months of coping. Self-enhancers who did not display positive symptoms at the seven-month interview were usually those who felt that they were in high physical danger. Thus, even self-enhancers may have difficulties related to extreme exposure to potentially extreme traumatic events.

Responses of friends and relatives showed that despite having been in or near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, self-enhancers were able to return relatively quickly to their normal levels of feeling and functioning. One interesting finding was that friends and relatives of self-enhancers who experienced high levels of exposure during the attack, such as witnessing deaths and injuries, reported that the self-enhancers seemed to be "less honest" after 18 months.

 

Most New Yorkers Exhibited Resilience

In a related study, Dr. Bonanno and his colleagues looked at a representative sample of 2700 New Yorkers that indicated that only one in four people exhibited Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and half of the remaining people in the study showed signs of resilience.

"We had a dream data set on the entire city-one that almost exactly replicated the 2000 census-and we looked at every different level of exposure, from people who were in the towers, to people who were injured, who lost loved ones and who lost loved ones and saw the planes hit the towers," Bonanno said. "We never found less than a third of the group being resilient, and usually it was about half. So even when you have a lot of PTSD, you still have a lot of resilience."

Those who exhibited the most severe PTSD in that sampling were those who experienced both the loss of a loved one and who personally witnessed the attack on the towers. Of those who were in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, more than half exhibited resilience and only 25 percent exhibited signs of PTSD.

So do these results mean that most New Yorkers are self-enhancers?

"Self-enhancement is not that common," Bonanno says. "So there will be some self-enhancers in New York but not only self-enhancers." Perhaps, he added, it's just that New Yorkers are "tough."

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