Skip to Main Content

Recovering from a traumatic event like the airport and subway attacks in Brussels this week starts long before the final tally of casualties and damage. For psychology professor Elke Van Hoof, it started in her classroom on Tuesday morning at Vrije University in Brussels.

As her students’ phones started pinging with news of the terror, “we stayed in the classroom together and talked,” Van Hoof told STAT, just hours after the attack.


Some students cried, others got angry. “It’s okay to feel angry and to feel despair,” Van Hoof said.

But it is what happens after those feelings are manifested that most intrigues mental health experts. Researchers now want to go beyond the trauma to find out how some people recover quickly or limit the emotional and mental damage.

Tragic events — from the 9/11 attacks to the Boston Marathon bombing to the recent shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris — have all brought attention to their psychological impact. Research has shown, for example, that after terrorist attacks, later disasters and media coverage can increase post-traumatic stress.


And psychologists are now using these kinds of events to better understand the phenomenon of resilience — how it’s made, what it looks like, who has it, and how to create it where it doesn’t yet exist.

All that will come later, though. In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s attacks, the Belgian Institute for Psychotraumatology started mobilizing a team of emergency responders to provide mental health services for citizens who feel affected by the attacks.

According to Naomi Vandamme, a clinical psychologist with the organization, her team is particularly focused on those who are most vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“PTSD rarely comes alone,” Vandamme said. “People who get it will often have some other disorder, like depression or anxiety. And those who had already been traumatized before the event will experience more post-traumatic stress.”

One of the first signs of post-traumatic stress that Belgium can expect to see is that some people will avoid certain areas, Vandamme said.

“People may think, ‘I’m not going to take the metro,’ or ‘I won’t go into the city,’ or ‘I’m not going to take my vacation because it might not be safe,'” she said, adding that those behaving so fearfully will need supportive care.

Vandamme and her colleagues will also be researching the fallout from the deadly bombings in Brussels — yet another tragic data point in the growing literature about how people do or don’t persevere through the chaos.

“It’s a little too soon to know what we will study, but we have a research team in place,” Vandamme said. “I would be very interested in comparing the group that will have a lot of trauma-related disorders to those that don’t. What I would love to learn about are the people who will not have a problem.

“We do know that people who have a safe relationship with a supportive figure in their lives, and people with a stronger sense of identity, have better coping skills,” Vandamme added. “But we want to learn how, so we can bring services that can bring people closure on these events.”