Crash therapy

A new study finds airplane accident survivors emotionally healthier than those who have never crashed.

By Chris Colin
Published August 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Forget Prozac -- survive your next plane crash and you've got a real shot at happiness.

Or so say researchers at Old Dominion University in Virginia. A psychological comparison of airplane crash survivors with regular flyers who have never crashed yielded the following: Crash survivors report significantly less depression, anxiety, anger and irritability in their lives.


The crash survivors -- 15 were surveyed successfully, drawn from around the United States -- are also said to act out negative feelings far less than the no-crash group.

"The findings suggest that the crash survivors are essentially in a better state of emotional health than the non-crash-exposed air travelers," researchers Gary Capobianco and Thanos Patelis wrote. The authors presented their findings Friday at the annual American Psychological Association conference in Boston.

"When you've lived through something that traumatic, subsequent events that would be traumatic or trying kind of pale in comparison to surviving an airplane crash," Capobianco said in a Reuters interview.


The findings are consistent with existing research on shipwreck survival. According to the authors, shipwreck survivors studied in 1993 reported "strong positive changes in outlook on life, greater self-esteem, and most important of all, lower scores on measures of post-traumatic symptomatology."

The sample population was somewhat self-selected. Several of the survivors were called out of the blue, their names culled from old newspaper accounts. Others responded to ads placed in the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News. The authors concede that the most distressed crash survivors would be less likely to participate in the study.

Somewhat predictably, the crash-exposed group fell into two camps. Those who felt they had maintained control during the accident reported lower levels of emotional distress than survivors who had experienced less control. A similar line divided those who had and hadn't received post-crash counseling: Those who received help tested less healthy than those who had not, presumably because they'd suffered more during the event.


Eight business professionals, graduate students and co-workers of the authors made up the non-crash-exposed group. The only criteria were that they fly round-trip at least five times per year, and that they had never experienced any type of aviation crash.

In 1998, there were 24 commercial airline accidents around the world, killing 1,262 people, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. It's estimated that 82 percent of all passengers involved in general aviation accidents survive.


"Statistics show that a person would have to travel on an airline flight every day for 35,000 years to be assured of being in an accident," according to

Good news in the survival department, somewhat less encouraging for those considering alternate therapy strategies.

Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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