Psychological impacts of being trapped in a cave | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 09.07.2018
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Psychological impacts of being trapped in a cave

The Thai boys trapped in a cave may not only face psychological problems, but also gain psychological benefit, says psychologist Prof. Dr. Brigitte Lueger-Schuster from the University of Vienna.

DW: In your opinion, what is the negative impact or the general impact on youngsters trapped in a cave for such a long time?

I think the core problem is a lack of daylight. People who exclusively live in the dark for a long time are more stressed, because their usual sleep-wake rhythm is disrupted. This impacts the quality of sleep and the body's entire biorhythm.

What impact do you think darkness or a lack of sunshine has, given that a lack of sunshine is not merely about vitamin D, right?

No it's much more than that. Humans are used to a day and night structure. If this is lost, it becomes even harder to cope with stress and other external influences.

Would you say that the children could suffer specific psychological damage, such as nightmares or claustrophobia?

I'm very sure that they will have some problems. For example, in rooms where they can't get out immediately. The sound of falling rain might also trigger a trauma, because this is what led them into the trap. They might also find it hard to trust their environment after this experience.

You mentioned rain. Now heavy rains are expected to lash northern Thailand for weeks, probably filling up the cave further. It is, however, possible that some of the children cannot swim. Do you think humans can surpass themselves in dramatic situations?

Yes, humans can do that. We call this 'survival energy'. And we also have to consider that these boys are athletes, so they are quite resilient. They are probably quite disciplined, and I'm pretty sure that in this crucial situation they will manage to dive out of the cave.

The boys are youngsters aged between eleven and 16 years. Do you think there is a difference between adults and teenagers in terms of handling these kinds of situations?

That's hard to say, because it's also related to cultural differences we see between Europe and Asia, for instance. Also, they might have more physical strength than adults. And maybe they're less afraid than adults because they might not understand the full extent of what happened to them.

So, you think they don't have this fear that adults have. Can you explain what you mean by that?

These boys are athletes. People who do sports are usually a bit more courageous than the general population. Walking into a dark cave needs courage. They walked in not knowing what would come. So they are probably quite adventurous, something that could be a good resource to help them cope with the current situation.

Infografik Rettungsaktion in Thailand Höhle EN

Are adults more cautious than teenagers - based on the experiences they've gained throughout their life?

In general, teenagers are more curious and less anxious than adults. That's a given fact. So they often seek risks without fully understanding the consequences of their actions and what it might mean if an accident occurs.

In your opinion, what would be the best way to mentally prepare these young people for the outside world?  

I think the best thing to do is to install a kind of daylight structure in the cave. That way, the children can get reaccustomed to a normal day and night rhythm.

Once they have been rescued, they should be reunited with their parents and kept away from the public so that they have the chance to recover in a safe and quiet place. I would also suggest that they stay together with their parents, but within the group.

Do you think they will need subsequent psychological care for a long time after they are rescued?  

I would definitely give them subsequent psychological attention in order to find out whether they need further treatment later on. I would keep them under observation for at least one month to watch their development.

Some might have problems, others might not. It's hard to predict, because the reaction to such an experience is individually specific and differs from person to person. 

Could such an experience make a child stronger for their future life?  

Yes, we call that 'post-traumatic growth'. This growth occurs after a person was extremely stressed and has experienced a hard time with psychological irritations. As soon as they have a good therapy and are socially included, people can have a psychological gain from such a horror situation.

The children might become more sensitive and more sociable. They might start acknowledging the beauty of life more than before. So it is a positive impact that might emerge from a traumatic experience. That is what we call 'post-traumatic growth'. 

Professor Dr. Brigitte Lueger-Schuster is a psychologist and lecturer at the Institute for Applied Psychology at the University of Vienna.

The Interview was conducted by Reyhaneh Azizi.


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