- Historic Sites
Terror Of Trains
It was once as big as fear of flying, and it helped show the way to psychotherapy and the modern treatment of traumatic stress
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
Today, in the aftermath of our most recent national trauma, we have many more psychological tools with which to address the emotional state that is the descendant of railway neurosis, posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. And, in the way of the field of psychology in general, we continue to learn. Many health-care professionals were surprised to find symptoms of PTSD turning up in people (including children) far from ground zero. The events of September 11 also reminded psychologists that we humans possess a powerful mental tool called habituation, a tool that may help explain the disappearance of railway neurosis.
Habituation occurs on a molecular level in the brain, and it is the human animal’s way of adjusting to change in its environment; if we didn’t habituate, we would live in a constant state of anxiety and vigilance. Citizens of the early twentieth century had no choice but to habituate to the overwhelming emotional challenges of modern industrial life, including trains, with their dual capacity to excite and to terrify. Similarly, we now accept the reality of armed guards at airports, and most of us have become willing once more to step onto an airplane. The act of flying defies the reality humans used to know—as does the possibility of destruction by civilian weapons from the sky—but we have learned to adapt and to move on to the next challenge of twenty-firstcentury life.