By Marta Aizenman Ph.D. Director, Cook College Counseling Center, Rutgers University
Stressful Feelings after Trauma are a Normal Reaction
The horrible events of September 11 have affected us all. We try to make sense of what has happened and come to grips with the aftermath. We are feeling unsettling emotions. These feelings are new and seem disruptive to our previous sense of well being. For many, the terrorists acts have undermined our sense of security and control. The feeling that one can plan for the future and live a successful life has been replaced by moods of doom and gloom. Such feelings range from an overwhelming sadness at the tragedy, a sense of loss, distractibility, and crippling depression. They are increased if the individual happens to know someone who was killed in the attacks. These overwhelming emotions can negatively impact our behavior. People may obsess that subsequent attacks may occur. They may refuse to travel by airplane, avoid a flight on a certain airline involved in the attacks, or decide they will only ride in cars exclusively. Such behaviors are an attempt to maintain control over the uncontrollable. Sensations of relief for not having been physically harmed go hand in hand with guilt feelings. Many of us have previously visited the site of the attacks or flown on the same airlines. Often one experiences relief at not being harmed, yet feel guilty for being alive. "It could have been me," is a frequent sentiment accompanied by a tangible sense that one has lost the joy of survival. Even smiling seems inappropriate. While adults are coping with the aftermath of this tragedy, we must also remember our children are similarly impacted. They are also worried about their own personal safety and that of their parents. Youngsters may become moody, complain of stomachaches, withdraw from their friends and family, or worry about new attacks. School performance may be negatively affected and they may experience changes in sleep or appetite. Both adults and children find it difficult to concentrate on their daily routine. The horrific images of destruction, seen over and over again on TV can creep into our dream cycle in the form of nightmares. Reactions vary, with some feeling the need to meet with others, talk out their feelings and emotions, while some may desire to withdraw. Also, we see others express an overwhelming anger with a desire for revenge on those responsible for the attacks. Conversely, others only desire to seek a sense of safety and security. How can we help ourselves ease these strong emotions? It is very important to remember that these reactions are a normal response to an abnormal situation. Those who have previously experienced trauma in their lives may find that past techniques used to deal with these feelings will make the task of recovery a bit easier. At the same time, negative emotions may reappear. Those who have never experienced a tragedy may find it difficult to learn to cope. We need to be patient with ourselves as we undertake our personal healing. These feelings will not change or be resolved overnight.
Marta Aizenman, Ph.D. has a doctorate in counseling psychology. She is the director of the Cook College Counseling Center at Rutgers University. She has a private practice in Princeton, and is a Board member of the Mercer County Psychological Association. Echo R. Fling collaborated with Dr. Aizenman on writing this article. This article originally appeared in the Princeton Packet on September 21, 2001
There are things we can do to start the process of healing.
• Strive to maintain your previous routine.
• Limit possible depressive sources such as TV and media coverage.
• Share your feelings with others and accept their support.
• Give yourself "time-outs."
• Be non-judgmental of other's feelings and reactions to the attacks.
• Accept that your performance will decrease.
• Be patient as you regroup your thoughts and emotions.
Ways to help children cope with the tragedy:
• Reassure them that they will be kept safe. This is the most important thing parents can do.
• Maintain your child's schedule.
• Do not expose them to excessive media coverage.
• Encourage them to express their feelings through talk, play activities, or art.
• Answer your child's questions but try to find a way to discuss the issues without alarming them.
The old adage, "Time heals all wounds" is very appropriate to this discussion.
It is important to remember that these reactions to the horrible national tragedy are very normal. While some may feel that they are "OK" at the present time, they may find disruptive feelings may surface at a later time. This delayed response is normal. Others who feel that they have successfully dealt with their feelings may also find that an event or anniversary may trigger a reoccurrence of these feelings. This is also normal.
We need to be patient with ourselves and with each other as we deal with this huge national tragedy. If needed, we may seek the help of a professional counselor to help us explore thoughts and find ways to cope.
As we each work out our own personal process of healing, we should remember that as time passes, these disruptive feelings will decrease and may become easier to handle.