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Psychological Effects of Terrorism : Many will suffer lasting psychological effects from terrorist attacks on U.S.


The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, a non-profit organization made up of more than 2000 mental health professionals who study the impact of traumatic events and treat trauma survivors, said today that there is potential in the recent terrorist attacks to cause severe distress and psychological suffering. "Research indicates a link between experiencing mass traumatic events like this attack and later mental health problems for many," said ISTSS President Bonnie Green, Ph.D., "especially those who were injured, directly witnessed the death of others, or experienced the loss of family members and friends. Rescue workers and caretakers of the injured and bereaved also may experience significant mental distress," Dr. Green said.

Because these attacks were deliberate, extremely violent, and involved large numbers of casualties, there is potential for many people to suffer lasting psychological effects. Even those who only watched the events unfold on TV may experience strong psychological reactions.

Research has shown that while most people exposed to traumatic events do not have lasting problems associated with their exposure, many may experience mild stress reactions, and 20% or more may develop clinically significant psychological problems. If significant distress continues for many months, becomes more, rather than less, severe over time, or interferes with one's daily ability to function, professional help should be considered.

"People's reactions to violent events with loss of life vary greatly, and there are no correct or incorrect responses," said ISTSS President-Elect John Briere, Ph.D. "Common initial reactions include fear, disbelief, and helplessness," Dr. Briere continued. "Symptoms over time may include feelings of horror, anxiety, depression, and even emotional numbness -- or lack of feelings. People may keep reliving images of the events in the form of nightmares and 'flashbacks,' have difficulty concentrating, not feel close to loved ones, and experience heightened physical tensions or health problems."

Individuals may feel irritable and some may try to "calm down" by using alcohol or other substances. Children, like adults, may have difficulty sleeping or nightmares, and may avoid reminders of the events. They also may act out aspects of the events in their play, or avoid school, social play, or being around other people.

In the current tragedy, feelings of anger, blame, and rage may be more common than usual, and have the potential to lead to violence against others, including loved ones. Combined with the understandable fear that many citizens are experiencing, this anger can result in verbal or physical attacks on others who are perceived as being like the (unknown) terrorist enemy. While these feelings are understandable and normal, violence may beget yet more violence and add to the overall suffering from the original event.

The Society offered this advice:

  • People can help themselves by spending time with supportive friends and family, sharing feelings and comforting each other.
  • Taking care of one's self is also advised: getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and limiting use of alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes.
  • Write in a journal.
  • Offering assistance to others as well.

Children can be helped to understand that it is normal to be upset, to express feelings and thoughts about the events, and to return to normal routines as soon as possible. While some people recover on their own, or with the mutual help of loved ones, given sufficient time, not everyone does. For this reason, some people may need professional help for posttraumatic stress reactions, anxiety, depression, anger, or other trauma-related mental health problems.

September 18, 2001 Feedback | © Yenra