Coping With the Emotional Effects of 9/11

Psychologist Patricia Canson-Griffith advises people to acknowledge their feelings.

Posted: 09/11/2011 08:00 AM EDT
Filed Under mental health

Only the hardest of hearts were not moved by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands lost their lives in three separate terrorist attacks in New York’s financial district, at the Pentagon and over Pennsylvania. In a Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll released Sept. 9, 2011, almost half of U.S. adults who experienced physical or psychological problems in the aftermath of 9/11 continue to struggle with feelings of fear and anxiety. Such feelings are stoked as the world prepares to commemorate the attacks’ victims and their survivors.

 

Psychologist Patricia Canson-Griffith, who serves on the faculty at Medgar Evers College and runs a small practice, said that there is a phenomenon known as “anniversary reaction,” which can trigger stress around such occasions as the 9/11 anniversary or other emotional events.

 

“Very often it just kind of creeps up on people. They’re not even thinking about the event and they’ll find themselves anxious or irritable. They may have problems with sleep, sometimes they’ll eat more than usual or have no appetite at all,” she said.

 

Anniversary reaction to 9/11 often occurs on an unconscious level in people who were not directly impacted, but those who were in New York or at the Pentagon, or who lost friends, relatives and co-workers, are more likely to feel it much more deeply and know why they're more emotional than usual.

 

“They have what we’ve commonly called ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Why did this one perish and I didn’t? Or, why is this one now experiencing some delayed physical or emotional trauma and I’m not?” Canson-Griffith explained.

 

In either case, she says, it’s important that people acknowledge their feelings, whether they were there or experienced the terrible events vicariously through the media. And it is also important to give oneself permission to feel those emotions.

 

“Sometimes we think we have to be strong, we have to stand up for America or we have to stand up for our families and we can’t be weak,” Canson-Griffith said. “The fact is we were all traumatized and to have some emotion about it is absolutely normal and expected.”

 

Perhaps the only wrong things people can do are to ignore their feelings and not turn to others for help if they need it. They may not need therapy, unless those feelings are persistent, in which case therapy should be sought, Canson-Griffith counsels, but they can certainly visit online chat rooms, support groups, places of worship and other sources.

 

She also encourages people who are struggling with their feelings around the anniversary to consider creating their own rituals, such as a silent prayer by a body of water or writing a letter to someone who perished, whether they know the person or not. The simple act of doing something, no matter how small, can create a catharsis and help them through the healing process.

 

Forty-seven percent of respondents in the Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll said they now try to appreciate life more as a result of 9/11 and 34 percent said they spend more time with family and friends.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

From Our Partners