Coping with the Psychological Impact of Terrorism

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CI, No. 11November, 2001

Jackelyn Frost, CSW

Although New Yorkers are striving to regain a sense of normalcy, the World Trade Center attack has created a deep sense of fear and has threatened people’s most basic sense of security. Such violent, random, unprovoked and intentional actions are beyond normal comprehension – and they can set off a chain of psychological events culminating in fear, helplessness, vulnerability and grief.

It’s likely that the closer your connection to “ground zero” and the events of Sept. 11, the greater the likelihood that you may experience more severe trauma and possibly a lasting impact on your system. Yet all of us are likely to experience some level of traumatic reaction, regardless of whether or not we were directly affected. And, while you may have experienced reactions a few hours or days after the traumatic events, such reactions may sometimes occur weeks or even months later. Knowing what you can expect following a trauma can help to normalize your experience and reduce your stress response.

Normal, expected reactions to trauma can be physical, emotional or behavioral. Our bodies react to trauma by releasing chemicals, such as adrenaline, into the bloodstream. These chemicals are intended to help us take care of ourselves. However, these chemical reactions, together with intense emotions, may create physical reactions. It is also common to experience wide-ranging feelings that may fluctuate dramatically, after exposure to trauma.

Today, weeks after the disaster, many people are experiencing the following reactions:

  • Increased moodiness and irritability, arguments and family discord, including domestic violence;
  • Exhaustion
  • Numbing
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Anger and suspicion
  • Apathy and depression
  • Crying for no apparent reason
  • Frustration, anxiety and feelings of powerlessness over one’s future
  • Decreased intimacy
  • Increased alcohol consumption and/or substance abuse
  • Survivor’s guilt
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Isolating oneself from family, friends, or social activities
  • Illness, including increased effects of allergies, colds and flu, as well as psychosomatic problems in adults and children
  • Clinging, acting out and regressive behavior in children.

All of these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

Many things can help us cope with the lingering reactions to our experience of terrorism. While sometimes you may need to be alone and not feel forced to communicate with others, it remains important to talk to people and to accept support from others when you can. This will help you relieve your stress and realize that others share your feelings. Finding empathic people to speak to about these experiences – and being empathic toward others who are struggling to integrate these experiences in their minds – is tremendously important in our healing.

It is also very important to find ways to help your body feel safe. Get as much physical activity as possible. Physical exercise, alternated with relaxation, will help alleviate your physical reactions. Get a massage. Give someone a hug – touching is very important in this kind of healing. Eat well-balanced, regular meals and get enough rest, to increase your reserves of energy and strength.

Be cautious of making big life changes. During periods of extreme stress, we all tend to make misjudgments. Do make as many smaller, daily decisions as possible, to help reestablish a feeling of control over your life.

Give yourself permission and time to grieve. Realize that things will get better – but be realistic about how long it takes to feel better.

Focus on your strengths and coping skills. Set small, realistic goals and work to reestablish daily routines for yourself and your family. Whenever possible, take time off and do something you enjoy.

Be aware of the actions our government is taking to combat terrorism and restore safety and security. Recognize that trained officials throughout the country are mobilized to prevent, prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks. Also, limit your exposure to the re-traumatizing effects of media coverage.

If you are having trouble coping with the aftermath of the attacks, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. There are many ways professionals can help you to cope and manage the emotional, physical and behavioral responses that result from trauma.

The MAP office can provide help through free short-term counseling as well as assessment and referrals to psychotherapists for individual, couples, or family therapy to address these issues. If you would like to schedule an appointment with a MAP social worker, call (212) 397-4802. Office hours are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.