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Passengers are rescued after a U.S. Airways plane landed in the Hudson River in New York January 15, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Thayer (UNITED STATES) (REUTERS/Eric Thayer (UNITED STATES))
Passengers are rescued after a U.S. Airways plane landed in the Hudson River in New York January 15, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Thayer (UNITED STATES) (REUTERS/Eric Thayer (UNITED STATES))

In Distress

How to be prepared when disaster strikes Add to ...

They were adrift on open water for nearly 40 hours after watching their home-away-from-home, a tall ship, get sucked into the ocean.

But already, some students rescued last week from the sinking S.V. Concordia are contemplating a return to sailing.

One of the rescued students, 17-year-old Keaton Farwell, told reporters that some of the girls aboard the ship had promised to never sail again, but had started to change their minds by the time they arrived safely on Canadian soil.

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It might seem like a strange reaction for a group of people who narrowly escaped with their lives.

Experts who study psychological responses to traumatic situations say that many people are surprisingly resilient in the face of extreme stress. However, that level of resilience can hinge on a complex set of neurological responses that vary throughout individuals and can explain why some recover more quickly than others.

"Stress is one of these catch words. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people," says Anthony Phillips, scientific director of the Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Soldiers often feel lifelong effects from going to war, feelings that range from mild to severe.

But other situations can have lasting effects on those who experience them, such as living through a natural disaster, witnessing a major car accident, or experiencing a close call like the students aboard the Concordia or passengers on the 2009 United Airways flight that was forced to make an extraordinary landing in the Hudson River.

Certain individuals are well-equipped to handle harrowing situations, while others may be more deeply affected and even risk developing a stress disorder, experts say.

Dr. Phillips says that a person who has successfully dealt with stressful situations in the past may have a boosted ability to tolerate challenging situations.

But one of the key elements that can determine how a person will respond to a traumatic event is whether or not they feel they have some semblance of control, says Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist with the work, stress and health program at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

For example, many students rescued from the Concordia told reporters they had practised emergency drills and knew what to do when disaster struck.

"To know, to be aware of all the protocols and measures can really help a person," Dr. Kamkar says. "The more we have knowledge [of]what to expect, what to predict, how to be prepared, it really… brings a sense of safety. It helps to decrease the sense of helplessness."

Contrast that with passengers aboard the infamous flight that landed in the Hudson River, or those aboard a 2001 Air Transat flight that lost its fuel and managed to glide to safety in the Azores.

Margaret McKinnon, an assistant professor in the psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences department at McMaster University, was on the Air Transat flight and is now researching how people responded to that event.

She says that while a "significant portion of people show resilience to highly traumatic, stressful events," up to 10 per cent of individuals may develop a serious disorder.

Those who are particularly vulnerable include people who have a history of problems with stress, says Dr. McKinnon, who is also a research scientist with the mood disorders program at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont.

Regardless of their long-term state of mind, a majority of the 64 passengers who were aboard the tall ship Concordia will experience an array of stressful symptoms typical of anxiety-provoking situations, Dr. Kamkar says.

Symptoms may include inability to sleep, bad dreams, irritability and difficulty concentrating, Dr. Kamkar says.

"It's very natural and it's expected."

If those problems persist, however, it might be a sign of a bigger problem that needs professional help, she says.

Scientists and medical experts are still struggling to understand exactly how and why people deal differently with traumatic events, but they believe a combination of innate characteristics and learned behaviours form the basis of those reactions.

For instance, the passengers aboard the Concordia chose to embark on the months-long adventure, which could indicate a heightened ability to accept risk and handle challenges, Dr. Phillips says.

"These may be people, fortunately, who through their life experience, through their physiology, might be partially well-adapted to deal with a stressful situation when it arose," says Dr. Phillips, who is also a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia.

"If that is a true statement, a sizable number of the people were able to rise to the challenge."

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