Because of WWII Poles are most traumatised nation in the world, says new study

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Around 19 percent of Poles - almost one in five - have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), new research shows. This is much higher than the world average (approx. 5-10 percent). This is facilitated by unprocessed, transgenerational trauma dating back to World War II, explains Dr. Marcin Rzeszutek from the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Warsaw.

A study published in Scientific Reports shows that nowadays the percentage of PTSD is lower among Poles whose families have talked openly about the experience of their family members during World War II than among respondents who did not know anything about their ancestors' trauma during the war.

'The conclusion is in the long run, it is not worth hiding difficult issues from the past from the family. Instead, we should create space to talk about these traumas, says the research project leader, psychologist and Gestalt psychotherapist Dr. Rzeszutek. This is one of the ways to break the vicious circle of intergenerational transmission of trauma.

The vast majority of people in the world (50-90 percent) experience a traumatic event in their lives. Such situations may include the experience of war, a disaster, or a serious accident; being a victim or witness of assault, rape, kidnapping, domestic violence; receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness or stressful work, for example in emergency services. However, only about 5-10 percent of people who experience such traumatic events develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts (intrusions), nightmares and hallucinations related to the traumatic event, as well as psychophysical tension, fatigue, and avoidance of situations that remind of the unpleasant event.

Dr. Rzeszutek mentions that worldwide, PTSD is reported on average in approximately 5-10 percent of people, in Central Europe it is 1-4 percent, in the USA - 4-8 percent, and in Africa - over 10 percent.

The new study covered a representative group of Poles (almost 1,600 people). The percentage of people with PTSD turned out to be surprisingly high: as much as 19 percent (this is mentioned in the publication in PLOS One) 'And this means that Poland - as far as we know - is the most traumatised country in the world,’ says Dr. Rzeszutek.

'The experience of trauma itself is not more common in Poland than in other countries in the world, but if trauma occurs, it turns into PTSD more often than in other countries,’ he adds. 

Research by psychotraumatologists suggests that this susceptibility to PTSD may be related to the trauma from World War II that has not been processed in families. The effects of war trauma can be noticed in the grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of World War II survivors.

Professor Maja Lis-Turlejska's research shows that PTSD developed in Poland due to the trauma of World War II in a very large percentage of civilian survivors: 29-39 percent of surviving civilians (for comparison: almost 2 percent in Austria and 10 percent in Germany).

The psychologist explains that Poles, who were terribly affected by World War II, had very difficult conditions to work through their traumas after the war. 'Poland went from plague to cholera: from the German occupation during World War II to the Soviet occupation,’ says Dr. Rzeszutek.

He adds that people who were members of the Home Army and suffered trauma during the war had to hide their past during the Stalinist era because of the risk of repression. Not only did those citizens lack systemic support, but their traumas were also not addressed and socially recognized. These experiences were also often kept silent within families. The atmosphere of fear and taboo related to various types of trauma could be passed on to subsequent generations.

'Traumatic experiences contribute to serious problems on many levels. This process is often further deepened by the conspiracy of silence around such trauma among the person's closest relatives. As a result, the trauma survivor is forced to adopt one of the survival strategies,’ the scientists say. 

According to Dr. Yael Danieli's concept, after experiencing the so-called massive traumas (e.g. war, concentration camp) people develop certain styles of post-traumatic adaptation. They are divided into three groups: victim (this includes remaining in loss and experiencing trauma, emotional instability and being overprotective); numb (emotional cutting off, conspiracy of silence in the family and low tolerance for showing weakness); and fighter (manifested, for example, as the cultivation of national identity and the praise of the pursuit of perfection and justice).

Dr. Rzeszutek explains that although adopting one of these patterns by a person after experiencing such a massive trauma seems to help temporarily, it does not solve the problem. it Is not a good solution in the long run.

'These adaptational styles (...) also impact trauma survivors' family members by structuring their identity, emotions, and beliefs about themselves, society, and the world in general,’ says the study in Scientific Reports.

Dr. Rzeszutek says that these patterns of 'coping with massive trauma among people who survived World War II influenced subsequent generations; they were a transmission belt for transgenerational trauma.’

Some studies suggest that parents' post-traumatic adaptation styles influence the psychosocial development of their offspring. This increases susceptibility to PTSD symptoms when exposed to a traumatic event.

According to Dr. Rzeszutek, not only talking openly about family traumas and emotions, but also spreading knowledge about PTSD and education on psychotraumatology can play an important role in reducing the risk of PTSD among Poles.

It may also be helpful to talk about war traumas as objectively as possible in public discourse, without left or right-wing extremes. As researchers point out, the psychosocial effects of WWII remain an unspoken topic of scientific discourse and public debate in Poland.

Dr. Marcin Rzeszutek from the Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw.

Dr. Marcin Rzeszutek, a professor at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Warsaw, is a psychologist and Gestalt psychotherapist ('Ośrodek JA'). (PAP)

PAP - Science in Poland, Ludwika Tomala 

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