Coping with the Trauma of Terrorism
It is by design that terrorism strikes fear in the hearts, minds and souls of its victims. Witnessing human horror and tragedy drains us physically, emotionally and spiritually. The trauma wreaks havoc on our sense of emotional well being, subjecting us to a whirlwind of emotions. We are overwhelmed by intense feelings, such as sadness, grief, fear, helplessness, anger and rage, or by emotional numbness, shock and disbelief. And because these feelings tend to linger, or even intensify over time, we may feel re-victimized by our reactions to trauma. In addition, our bodies tend to react to emotional strain with an increased susceptibility to health problems. Headaches, stomach problems, lowered immunity and reduced pain tolerance are common complaints.
If ignored, symptoms of trauma may lead to an emotional illness called “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” commonly referred to as “PTSD.” PTSD was first recognized in soldiers returning from World War I. Although these brave men had survived the war and healed their physical wounds, the emotional scars from battle continued to haunt them. Doctors noticed that vast numbers of soldiers shared a common collection of physical and psychological symptoms:
- Nightmares and difficulty sleeping
- Flashbacks in which the person re-experiences traumatic events. The person literally sees the events again as though watching a movie. He or she re-experiences the sights, sounds and feelings of the previous horror. The fact that these “flashbacks” could occur without warning, at any time, and without the person’s ability to control or stop them, added to a sense of powerlessness over the illness.
- Crying spells
- Irritability and temper outbursts
- Emotional numbness
- Increased “startle response” in which the person’s body overreacts to loud noises or other situations. The trauma survivor’s physical and emotional senses remain constantly “on guard” for danger, regardless of whether there actually is a threat.
- Panic and anxiety attacks
- Avoiding close ties to family, friends and community because the person fears becoming too close and then being hurt should tragedy reoccur
Since doctors first became aware of PTSD and the need for prevention, early intervention and treatment, we have witnessed many examples of the syndrome. Survivors of physical assault, domestic violence, rape, childhood abuse, wartime experiences or other acts of violence are at-risk for PTSD. And persons, who already are coping with the emotional baggage of living through previous traumas, may feel overwhelmed by new tragedies.
Before September 11th, and even including the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, most of us had never been exposed to terrorism on such a massive scale. We lived safe, secure lives and had not personally experienced the kinds of traumas that place us at risk for emotional illnesses such as PTSD. We may have heard trauma survival stories from parents and grandparents about living through World Wars I and II, Vietnam and the Great Depression. And while we developed admiration for the courage of our forefathers, we may not have truly related. And worse yet, we may have criticized and judged others for having difficulty recovering from old traumas. We may have failed to understand why trauma survivors couldn’t “hurry up and get over it.”
The fact is - it’s not easy to cope with the enormous, innumerable losses associated with the traumas of terrorism. And while we each respond differently, understanding the challenges we face in common helps provide a sense of support.
Normal Reactions to Crazy Situations
One of the greatest challenges facing trauma survivors: How do we cope with calamity? How can we behave normally in a crazy situation? What is a healthy “coping stance?”
Here are suggestions for coping:
- Go easy on yourself. It’s normal to feel afraid, sad and angry in the wake of traumatic losses. These are normal reactions to crazy situations. It’s healthy to understand and admit these feelings, rather than trying to hide them.
- Go easy on others. Remember that while we share many reactions in common, everyone’s trauma experience is unique. It’s important to maintain a non-judgmental attitude, to avoid criticism of differences in how people cope.
- Remember healing takes time. Recovery is hampered the longer the person’s exposure to trauma. And while recovery is an ongoing process, wartime situations that go on indefinitely make recovery more difficult.
- Try to maintain a positive attitude. When we focus too much on human horrors, we lose our sense of safety and security. It helps to focus on the positives in our lives to counter-balance the obvious negatives.
- Educate yourself about healthy coping strategies. Understand, for example, that communicating and sharing reactions to trauma with others is a healthy coping strategy - a strength, rather than a weakness. Experts know that people who respond to trauma as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened, are not coping as well as they might seem. In fact, these individuals filled with “false bravado” are much more likely to develop PTSD than those who have the courage to honestly express feelings and concerns.
- Practice stress management techniques. Get plenty of rest; eat a healthy diet and exercise.
- Pursue pleasurable activities. In the face of a trauma situation, we forget what it is like to simply relax. Or, we may feel guilty having a good time when so many others are suffering agonies.
- Take a break from mental and emotional worries. Remember that taking good care of yourself better prepares you to cope with trauma.
- Balance the need for safety with the need to maintain normal routine.
- Avoid isolation. Become involved in community activities that help you stay connected with family, friends and others similarly affected by crisis.
- Consider volunteer work or other activism to provide a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of helplessness.
- Develop a “take charge” attitude to focus on areas of life that remain under control.
- Familiarize yourself with symptoms of PTSD, so that you can recognize them in yourself and others, and if symptoms continue, seek the help of a mental health professional.
- Learn how to talk to your children about trauma to better ensure their ability to understand and cope.
- Stay informed, while limiting overexposure to television and other media. It’s important to avoid bombarding yourself with the sights, sounds and images of trauma.
If you or someone you know is in need of trauma-related assistance, help is available. Call the Bricklayers’ Member Assistance Program (MAP) to confidentially speak to a licensed mental health professional. Call toll-free at 1-888-880-8222