By Lynn Hagan, PsyD, CTRS, LCSW
NOTE: Lynn Hagan is a social worker who lived and worked in Kuwait for five years. As part of her duties she counseled State Department employees helping them deal with the stress and tension of living in this highly volatile region bordered by Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
|Who Is Affected?|
|What You May Experience Following a Terrorist Attack|
|Coping With Trauma|
Terrorism threatens a society by instilling fear and helplessness in its citizens. It seeks to hold a society or government hostage by fear of destruction and harm.
When terrorist acts occur, people generally look for ways to cope with the acute stress and trauma. Terrorism evokes a fundamental fear of helplessness. The violent actions are random, unprovoked, and intentional, and often are targeted at defenseless citizens. Trying to cope with the irrational information that is beyond normal comprehension can set off a chain of psychological events culminating in feelings of fear, helplessness, vulnerability, and grief.
Xenophobia, or the fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners, can be heightened under a terrorist threat and can become a social and psychological danger. The fear generated by terrorism can be exacerbated by a population’s diversity if there is distrust between groups, categories and classification of citizens.
In reality, diversity in a population is often an opportunity for unity and strength. Members of our diverse society who have experienced past terrorist incidents possess knowledge and experience gained from surviving and coping with these incidents. This can make them a valuable resource on how to cope and how to offer assistance to others.
After a terrorist attack, many people are impacted. Those who have experienced the trauma often fall into the following categories:
- Survivors of past traumatic events (e.g. refugees of wars, terrorism, or torture, and survivors of domestic violence, child abuse, or street crime). These individuals may have a heightened sense of vulnerability.
- People who personally witnessed or were victims of the terrorist attack.
- People who experience traumatization from learning of relatives, friends and acquaintances that were subject to the violence, or who are traumatized from exposure to repeated media accounts of the trauma.
People who have experienced or witnessed a terrorist attack may enter a state of acute stress reaction. One or all of these symptoms are possible:
- Recurring thoughts of the incident
- Becoming afraid of everything, not leaving the house, or self-isolating
- Stopping usual functioning, no longer maintaining daily routines
- Survivor guilt — “Why did I survive?” or ” I should have done something more.”
- Tremendous sense of loss
- Reluctance to express feelings, losing a sense of control over one’s life
- Identify the feelings that you may be experiencing. Understand that these feelings are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
- Remember that you have overcome adversity and trauma in the past. Try to remember what you did that helped you overcome the fear and helplessness in that situation.
- Talk to others about your fears. It’s okay to ask for help. Workplaces may convene small groups with a mental health professional so people can share feelings.
- On the other hand, if you do not feel like talking, that is alright too. Some people find exercise and other active ways of releasing feels more helpful.
- Make efforts to maintain a usual routine.
- Think positively. Realize that things will get better. Be realistic about the time it takes to feel better.
- Recognize that the nature of terrorist attacks creates fear and uncertainty about the future. Continue to do enjoyable things. Avoid preoccupation with the things you cannot control to the extent that they prevent you from living your normal life.
- Know 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. This reassurance can help create a sense of safety.
- Limit exposure to media coverage.
- If you are having trouble coping with the terrorist attacks, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Many clinical social workers have expertise in treating the anxiety that can result.
Repeated exposure to trauma by the media, even though the trauma is not being experienced first hand, can have the same kind of negative effects. Seeing disturbing images over and over not only desensitizes one to the event, but also adds trauma upon trauma – further intensifying the reactions to the event. By getting some distance from the event, by turning off the television or other media, we gives ourselves a chance to catch our breath and refocus our attention.
It will take some time to get over a traumatic event, and the time required to heal will vary by individual. Remember, things will return to normal. Completing daily tasks will become easier, sleeping, appetite, and energy levels will improve, feelings related to the present and future will be brighter, and the ability to enjoy life again will return. If the post traumatic stress symptoms do not improve within 6 months or severely interfere with daily functioning, one should seek professional assistance to help further deal with the trauma. Assistance should come from mental health professionals who are specially trained and experienced in dealing with the aftermath of trauma.