Healing in the Aftermath of Terror

Our world has been rocked by the recent terrorist attacks. Adults and children who were nowhere near New York or Washington, struggle with stress caused by these traumatic events. We feel lucky to be alive, but we also feel tremendous grief for those who died. Even though we may not have been directly involved, our stress and our grief are real.

  • The violence was random
  • The victims did not know their attackers
  • The attacks literally came out of the blue
  • We have been told to expect more terrorist acts
  • For the most part, except for donating money and blood, we were helpless to do anything
  • People have lost jobs as a result of the attacks
  • Our idea of the future has been changed forever

Symptoms of Traumatic Stress:

Signs of stress caused by the body’s normal fight or flight response to these abnormal events and the fear they have caused include: being easily startled, butterflies in the stomach, muscle tension, rapid heart rate or heart palpitations, dizziness, sweating palms, loss of appetite, nausea, stomach upse6t, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, chest tightness, trembling, feelings of being disconnected, overwhelming sadness, feelings of hopelessness, nightmares, isolation and irritability.

According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research foundation

  • 71% of Americans say they feel depressed since the attacks
  • Nearly half have had difficulty concentrating
  • One in three have had difficulty sleeping

These signs are not an indication of weakness. They signal us to take care of ourselves by taking steps to manage our stress levels. If this doesn’t work, we need to seek professional help. Self care and seeking help lowers the risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If we are to effectively meet the challenges in the days ahead, we need to begin healing our emotional wounds and help others do the same.

Steps Toward Healing:

  • Taking quiet time to journal about what happened and how you felt about it – even if this task seems unpleasant. Where were you when you heard the news? What were you thinking and feeling right afterwards? How do you feel now? The act of writing externalizes our feelings and relieves anxiety. Studies at Southern Methodist University show that even 15 minute writings about traumatic events and how we feel about them, reduce our levels of stress and the physical symptoms that accompany them.
  • Finding other ways to express yourself. Paint or draw what happened and how you feel. If you play music, write a song. Write letters to the newspaper. Write letters of encouragement to people who are on the front lines. Write sympathy letters to families of victims. Write letters to Congress and the President. (Encourage children and grandchildren to do the same.) Creative expression transforms, not only ourselves, but those around us, and ultimately our world.
  • Honoring your pain and your grief. In times such as this, we may tell ourselves, since other people are worse off than we are, we have no right to express our sadness, anger, fear or confusion. Most of us watched the plane smashing into the World Trade Towers over and over again. Many of us remember visiting the towers. Others know people who worked at the Pentagon or the WTC. We all need to mourn not only the victims, but also our loss of a sense of safety. Stuffing feelings raises the risk of developing PTSD.
  • Encouraging the people you know to talk about what they are feeling. Reflect feelings back to them rather than questioning them or picking at them. Saying, “You seem really scared right now,” or “I sense that you’re feeling outrage,” opens the way for them to tell their stories if they choose to do so. Children and adults both often need this kind of explicit permission to share feelings.
  • Listening deeply and respectfully to the stories other people tell. Compassionate, accepting listening is one of the most sacred and healing acts we can perform for another person. We don’t need to jump in with our take on the issue or give our advice on how to cope. Certainly we don’t need to tell people what they should or shouldn’t be feeling. Everyone handles trauma and grief in their own way. The meaning each of us gives to what has happened is unique. Often simply being with another person and serving as their witness is the most profound gift we can give them.
  • Strengthening your support networks. Even though it is tempting to “hunker down” by staying at home or keeping to yourself, make an effort to connect with friends, family and co-workers. Tell others how much their presence in your life means to you. Be supportive and encouraging. Allow people to support and encourage you.
  • Focusing on your strengths and the positives in your life. Make a poster listing everything you are grateful for and hang it where you can see it every day. Take a walk in nature and see the grass, the clouds and the trees. Become mindful of how many things in life give you pleasure. Make a to-do list of them to refer to when you feel stress mounting. Pay attention to the compassion and strength you see expressed by the actions of other people.
  • Learning more about trauma, grief and stress. Links to sites filled with helpful information.