THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SURVIVAL PART II: POST-EXPOSURE TRAUMA & CX

As consumers, employees and society at large emerge from hibernation post-pandemic, the excitement about a V-shaped recovery is palpable. Everyone from governments, businesses and consumers themselves are all thinking ‘back to normal please’. But that is not how recovery works. Addicts tend not to simply cease negative behaviours overnight and construct a new life the next morning. Those who suffer extreme trauma, be that natural disaster or physical violence, don’t simply snap back without consequence or behavioural effect. As I have written in the past, recovery is a journey not an outcome.

This blog is going to discuss trauma and recovery, and at the outset I would like to make something clear. I will use some extreme examples and case studies of trauma, but at no point am I comparing the pandemic and our collective lock-down to what these individuals have been through. I want to make that clear. Yes, society has been through a traumatic event (as all of our lives and identities were challenged) but I am not drawing parallels.

The point I want to make throughout, is that emerging from trauma takes time, we all recover at different times and in different ways, and ultimately brands and business need to understand this. Once the novelty of the re-emergence is over, we as brand owners may need to catalyse some of the consumer bounce back. Trauma and recovery are deeply personal and many factors are always at play, but some understanding of the psychology of trauma and recovery will certainly equip us as leaders and business owners over the coming months.

The Fritzl Horror Story

On the 26th April 2008, Elizabeth Fritzl saw the sky for the first time in 24 years. She had been held captive by her own father, in a purpose-built cellar under the family home in Austria, where she was neglected, tortured, abused and raped over 3,00 times, resulting in 7 children. When she finally made it out, aged 42, accompanying her 19-year-old critically ill daughter to hospital, the world learned of her 24-year terror. It puts our 14-month lock-down with Netflix and Uber Eats in slight perspective.

However, while none of us truly know the state of Elizabeth’s mental health, today, 13 years later, we know she lives with her children all under a new identity, has a relatively good relationship with her mother, and has found love. She is no longer in regular psychiatric therapy and certainly outwardly lives a relatively ‘normal’ life. Of course, this recovery didn’t happen overnight, but she seems to have the capacity to live a productive life.

Conversely, in 2012 Whitney Houston was sadly found dead, submerged in the bathtub in Suite 434 at the Beverly Hilton hotel, toxicology showing several narcotic substances in her system. Then just three years later, her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, aged 22 and Houston’s only child, was found unconscious in her own bathtub at home, never to recover from her coma, mirroring her mother’s death and suspected suicide. For Bobbi, the hypothesis is that perhaps the trauma of losing her mother was too much to cope with.

Recovering from Trauma

The question is this – Why do some people who go through significant trauma have more difficulty with recovery, sometimes developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while others seem to cope better with their new reality, sometimes even going through significant positive transformation and experiencing what has become known as PTG (posttraumatic growth).

If you run a brand or business, clearly you want to emerge from this crisis in more PTG mode and not suffer the restrictive reality of PTSD. Society as a whole has been through a collective trauma, and as consumers and employees emerge from their lock-downs, we can perhaps expect to see some mild PTSD behaviours in how they interact, with self, with others and with brands.  Your Customer Experience takes on a further strategic role in this light.

In Part I of this blog (The Psychology of Survival) we discussed the qualities that survivors have that drive them to success and overcome the immediate danger. Read it now if it passed under your radar. In this Part II we look at the psychology of trauma and how to ensure your brand or business doesn’t get stuck, unable to recover and thrive into the future.

What is PTSD?

To answer that we first have to ask ‘what is trauma’? Simply put, trauma is an emotional response. While there are physical ailments related to emotional trauma (headaches, nausea and digestive issues are common), trauma is mainly an emotional state brought about by exposure to an adverse event (like war, rape, violence, natural disaster, terrorist attacks or domestic abuse). Trauma has the potential to reduce a person’s capacity to live a productive life, and it could also limit our customers to attach to our brand or business, and limit our employees to be as productive as we might hope.

Societal and consumer trauma will limit consumer spending and the economic recovery. It is in all our interests, both business and personal, to understand the nature and psychology of trauma in order to deal with it. If good Customer Experience is about making a customer feel ‘seen, heard and valued’ then understanding how our customers may be ‘feeling’ is imperative.

PTSD is a collection of symptoms including flashbacks, anger, disconnection, anxiety, depression, insomnia/nightmares, memory impairment and excessive feelings of guilt. It was first properly studied and diagnosed in terms of psychotherapy in veterans returning from the Vietnam war in the 1970s, and is now a common diagnosis in everyday life. The unexpected loss of a loved one or relationship can result in PTSD as much as witnessing a terrorist attack or war crimes. As consumers and employees emerge from their pandemic hibernations, we are going to witness PTSD behaviours and need to equip our leaders and businesses with the skills and strategies to deal with same.

Why do Some Suffer More than Others?

This is a very complicated question, and one that has been the subject of much research. On March 13th 1996, Thomas Hamilton opened fire in a primary school in Dunblane (Scotland) killing 16 children aged five and six, including their school teacher, before turning the gun on himself. Amy Bestwick survived (now aged 33), but like many who did, suffered crippling PTSD, nightmares, flashbacks and attempted to take her own life on two occasions. Andy Murray, the professional tennis player was aged nine and was also in that same school that day. 20 years later he finally reached the coveted No. 1 ranking in the world.

Clearly the events that day impacted Andy, and perhaps he escaped his demons on the tennis court, but they did not impact his success in the way the events impacted Amy. Why? An NVVRS study of Vietnam war veterans in 1983 showed that a third of soldiers exposed to severe trauma went on to develop PTSD symptoms. But why them and not others?

In the animal kingdom, most creatures are naturally resilient, and some humans are too. However, some of us seem to have difficulty shutting down our stress response post-threat, holding on to the emotional response well after the threat has passed. Some have the ability to keep going, to beat the odds, while others get overwhelmed and struggle. Why?

A Loaded Dice

The research points to a number of factors that play a role in the severity of emotional trauma after an event. They are:

1.Support – Family History & Social Circumstances

 

Generally, those individuals that are physically and psychologically well pre-trauma, with solid relationships with family, and most importantly good support networks, tend to fare better. Those in loving and stable social relationships were more protected while those who had abuse or any mental health issues prior had a greater predisposition to suffer PTSD.

2. Exposure

The next obvious factor is the nature and extent of exposure to the trauma in question. Some of the Dunblane children may have witnessed the atrocities (or associated sounds) while others did not. Some soldiers took part in war crimes, some witnessed them while others did not. Some have had loved ones pass away because of this pandemic, others have not.

3. Post-Exposure Incidents

What also seems to play a critical role in outcome is post-trauma incidents – a lack of support, physical or psychological abuse or adversity, relationship breakdown, poverty, or grief all can have significant effects and bring about PTSD from past traumas.

4. Age

Interestingly, the research shows age to be a factor. This is because cognitive development continues until about the age of 25, and so younger people are more likely to generalise and project from a past traumatic experience. The younger you are exposed to the trauma, the more likely you are to have it linger. The Gen Z generation, trapped in their homes with their parents for the last year, missing out on social milestones (first kiss at a disco, high-school graduation, first year at university spent in a bedroom instead of lecture halls) may very well have behavioural implications.

5. Genetics & Hormones

There is some evidence that genes also play a role, with depression and anxiety disorders making some more vulnerable to PTSD. Serotonin (the mood stabilization transmitter hormone) can be inhibited where the serotonin transporter gene is weak, making someone more vulnerable to PTSD. Similarly another biomarker hormone is ‘Neuropeptide Y’, a nervous system regulator, boosting oxytocin levels, thereby reducing fear and disengaging an over-active amygdala (responsible for storing traumatic memories).

Of all these factors that influence PTSD outcomes, social support seems to be key, both prior to and after traumatic events. And it is this ‘social support’ where we as business and brand owners need to play a strong part. This is the big one, the social reconnection of The Big Take Back. This is why investment in the Customer Experience is so critical at this point.

Disoriented Consumers Don’t Engage

PTSD often results in a feeling numbness, disorientation of being ‘dazed’. To extrapolate that onto economic recovery and consumer spending post-pandemic, we do not want a disoriented shopper or numb society. Feelings of disconnection and disorientation will only prolong our social and economic return.

We need to inject social serotonin in everything we do. Remember serotonin stabilizes our mood. It gives us feelings of well-being and happiness. It enables brain cells to communicate with one another (which is why, when it is low, we get those feelings of numbness and not being able to ‘think straight’). And so, if we are to take the analogy of the body and map it on to society as a whole, we need to create this mood-stabilizer in everything we do.

So how do we help? Some shoppers will be slow to reengage, health concerns aside. They will be slow because they are numb from the trauma. They will have low-level feelings of being a ‘little lost’, unsure of what they want or how to get it. For every consumer straining to buy, to travel, to throw themselves into a mosh pit at a music festival, there will be those that are slower to reengage.

Of the 30%+ who suffer PTSD post trauma, interestingly, about 5% of those exposed to trauma suffer immediate short-term PTSD symptoms but quickly recover. Another 10% have these same temporary symptoms, but they pop up months or years later, with the last 15-20% developing enduring symptoms. It is this 30%+ of the population we need to help.

Support, Engage, Excite

As brands and businesses, it is our job to be that critical social support, to allow our brands to be the conduit through which consumers fulfil their desires of their recovery journey. This is about ensuring you invest heavily in Customer Experience over the next 12-months. This is about Compassionate Commerce and Community Consumer Collaboration.

This is about putting your brand beyond the competition by truly building customer loyalty, true emotive loyalty by being there for customers in ways they didn’t even expect. Surprise, excite and delight them. Make them smile and laugh and giggle. Be real and genuine and empathetic with all your brand communications.

I will leave you with this. If your brand or business is one of the ‘social supports’ that helps a customer during this recovery, then you belong in their hearts and minds forever. We remember those that were there for us when we needed it. The pandemic may be over (please let it be over!) but the post-trauma journey and reality is only beginning. Even for those not exhibiting PTSD behaviours, we are all slightly traumatised by the disconnection of the lives we knew.


In this blog there are some fairly heavy themes and cases discussed across kidnap, rape, school shootings, and suicide. While they are referred to above within a research/academic context, and are all publicly and widely written about cases, we should not forget that the individuals to whom these horrors were and are inflicted were very real, and of course we all wish peace and contentment to all who suffer from any form of trauma or PTSD.

Again, I want to stress I am not comparing the traumas discussed above to the pandemic, but simply drawing an analogy between recovery journeys and the need to allow time and healing to occur, and that support is a key part of that recovery.


This blog is extracted content from Ken Hughes’ latest keynote The Big Take Back: The Psychology of Consumer Recovery. Click to find out more and book this speech to inspire and engage your audience.

Ken Hughes is one of the top virtual speakers on the corporate circuit on the psychology of motivation, captivity, recovery and survival. He speaks on the challenges facing consumers, business and society.

Ken Hughes, known as The King of Customer Experience on the International Conference Circuit, studies emerging consumer behaviour and helps businesses and brands establish deeper and more relevant connections with their customers.

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