Lessons on the Psychology of Trauma in Korea’s Response to the Sewol Tragedy

The Sewol Ferry boat accident is one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters. With the advent of international Korean television and 24-hour news coverage, Koreans living all over the world are as devastated as their counterparts in Korea. TV stations canceled comedies and dedicated all airtime to somber coverage of the tragedy. Koreans grieved collectively and honored the dead and their families by doing nothing except think about the tragedy. People wore yellow ribbons in commemoration, but no one knew when to take them off without appearing heartless.

As a Korean American psychologist studying and treating traumatic stress, I believe that understanding how we all react to traumatic stress can help us cope with the tragedy effectively and reasonably. 

First, every one of us has a stress response system that many trauma experts simply call the “body’s alarm.” The alarm is designed to keep us safe. It sits in a primitive part of the brain called the limbic system and screens all incoming sensory information for threat. Threat can be directed towards ourselves or someone we love. Threat can also be real or imagined. That’s why parents can be even more traumatized by this tragedy. They cannot help but imagine their own children on that boat, sinking, screaming, and dying in the goriest detail their alarms can imagine.

Once the alarm is triggered, it does two things. First, it immediately prepares the body to either fight or flee. We feel a rush of energy as adrenaline enters the blood stream. Our hands get sweaty, our heart races, breathing quickens, and blood and energy get diverted away from our gut, leaving us feeling a little queasy. Second, the alarm alerts the neocortex, the higher part of the brain, to pay attention and make sense of what’s going on and what needs to be done. Our attention orients to the biggest threat. We all turn to watch. We have to. 

In the wild, when an animal is threatened by a predator, its alarm goes off and it fights or flees. When the threat has ended, the animal shudders off the remaining adrenaline, catalogs the experience and the threat, and returns to grazing, wandering, living life. Unfortunately, tragedies often do not provide us a natural outlet for alarm energy. The alarm energy stews in our bodies, driving our neocortex to keep looking for the enemy, to keep fighting or running away.

In this state, the alarm can hijack the brain. Every time it sees another video of the children drowning, it creates more alarm energy, spurring us to rescue them. The mind is driven mad with rage and looks to find who is to blame. We cry “murder!” and rabidly blame everyone we can, from the ship’s captain to the Korean president. The hijacked brain no longer thinks complexly, but only in the simplest terms—safe or dangerous, good or bad. The enemy becomes dehumanized, demonized. 

But, the hijacked brain suffers more when the enemy is within. Korea is torn between shame over its own negligent corruption and a desire to criminalize and punish everyone involved. 

I think this is why tragedies caused by acts of terror are easy for a nation. Look at the United State’s response to 9/11 or the Boston Marathon Bombing. The enemy was known and already identified as different. The nation united together and resumed living as soon as it could, rallying around the notion that it would not let terror win. Our TV shows started with a moment of silence, then we laughed and lived with renewed vigor and determination.

Koreans must not let alarm energy divide us. We must remember that we are all imperfect, capable of frail, selfish acts, and more importantly, realize that these acts also most often stem from minds hijacked by alarm. 

Some parents ask me “But, how can I guide my children to obey authority figures any more?!” To these parents, I first invite them to recognize that maddening alarm energy is what drives the despair underlying this question. And, I remind them of what Obama said after the Newtown shooting:

This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another.

Then, I remind them that the world is as it always has been—filled with beauty and horror, the magical and the mundane. This was an extremely rare accident in a world that is generally safe though still requires us to be reasonably cautious and careful. Children should still assume that adults care for them and protect them, while still exercising caution and good judgment. Then, I ask them to remember what they really care about for their children, which is to teach them to love and live with dignity and virtue. 

We cannot despair. We need to recognize how much our alarms have hijacked our rational thinking and expend alarm energy by first allowing ourselves to feel overwhelming grief, sadness, helplessness, fear and rage. We must take time to experience our feelings fully without immediately converting them into action. We must understand that feelings are like the weather that comes with every season. Though some may be unpleasant, it always passes and even rain and snow nourishes this life on this earth. 

Then, we can reclaim more of our minds by doing what our higher minds do best—remember the people we love and the values that define us. It produces feelings of calm, confidence, compassion, forgiveness and responsibility. These feelings need to co-exist with our grief and rage, so we can most effectively honor our alarm’s need to protect our children but also insure that we create a world that teaches them how to love and live with virtue.  This is truly the only way that we can weed out the corruption, greed and other human frailties our alarms are begging us to destroy.