Recovering from the trauma

Stress: Americans may find it harder than expected to re-engage in normal life after the recent terrorist attacks.

September 30, 2001|By Kathleen Megan | Kathleen Megan,Special to the Sun

That report you thought was so important two weeks ago: You must get back to it, but it seems irrelevant now.

Your child's birthday party needs to be planned, but who can focus on that? Your friend wants to share a joke, but laughing seems so insensitive.

For those lucky enough not to have a relative or friend hurt or killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, it might seem that by now life should have returned to normal. But of course it hasn't.

Mental health authority Heidi McCloskey from the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., has advice about how to re-engage in everyday life.

McCloskey, a crisis intervention specialist, said it helps to understand that it is normal to have trouble climbing back into ordinary routines after trauma. She emphasized that the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the airliners have meant we have all suffered a trauma.

"We are not the nurse in the burn unit, but we are struggling anyway, using up enormous amounts of psychic energy trying to deal with this," said McCloskey, a psychiatric nurse.

"It would be easy to get frustrated and angry with yourself if you find your mind wandering. Instead," she added, "I hope people can say: 'Oh, yeah. This is not a disorder. This is not pathological. This is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances, and over time it will reduce.' "

Here are typical post-trauma symptoms with suggestions for overcoming them. McCloskey said that typically it takes six to eight weeks for symptoms to disappear.

Physical symptoms:

Upset stomach, headache, difficulty sleeping, restlessness, elevated blood pressure.


Watch caffeine use. Try to eat foods that calm you, perhaps avoiding spicy food. If you can't sleep, try to stay in bed and rest. Don't turn on the television or read news accounts in the middle of the night.

Cognitive effects:

Can't concentrate, feel confused, have trouble making decisions.


Try to concentrate for 20 minutes at a time, then take a break. Don't use caffeine to prop you up. Take time to talk to others, perhaps calling a friend or family member if you don't talk much to co-workers.

Emotional response:

Finding yourself in tears, feeling full of rage or guilt.


It helps to understand that these are normal responses. Talking it out with friends and family helps. Do activities that help calm you, whether exercising or going to religious services. Helping the victims -- whether donating to a relief fund or saying prayers -- can also help ease the pain.

Behavioral changes:

You are eating more or less, smoking more, drinking more, over-exercising.


Try to move toward your normal behavior as much as possible.

Try to eat even if you feel you can't, or try controlling your eating, but this is not a great time to start a diet.

Kathleen Megan is a reporter for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Normal reactions

Mental health professionals say everyone responds differently to traumatic situations, regardless of how close the individual is to the event.

Because the terrorist attack was especially horrific, even people who do not have friends or family to be concerned about may feel overwhelmed and frightened -- especially because Americans' illusion of safety and invulnerability has been shattered.

Some of the normal reactions that you may experience:

* Physical reactions can include fatigue, nightmares, insomnia, hyperactivity, sleeping more than usual, startle reactions, underactivity, exhaustion, headaches, stomach problems and appetite changes.

* Cognitive reactions include difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decisions, difficulty solving problems.

* Emotional reactions include fear, anxiety, guilt, depression, feelings of helplessness, anger, violent fantasies.

Things to do to promote a healthy response:

* Alternate periods of inactivity with exercise to help alleviate physical reactions.

* Talk with others. Express your feelings.

* Continue your normal pattern of activities as much as possible.

* Give yourself permission to feel depressed, overwhelmed and sad, and express these feelings.

* Remind yourself that these reactions are normal -- you are not crazy.

* Find positive ways to express your grief. Give blood, write in a journal, reach out to others.

* Maintain good nutrition and don't numb yourself with alcohol or drugs.

Source: Student Psychological Counseling Services Wellness Center at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

-- Orange County Register

Web site

Since 1989, the National Center for PTSD (, an information and support arm of the government, has been helping sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder get back on their feet. As a result of the recent terrorist attack, the organization has updated its Web site to include a section intended to help Americans deal with the traumatic stress of terrorism.

-- From wire reports

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