By John Weaver and Jennifer Walters

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, many Americans have felt shock, anger and grief.  Associations have members and family who have been injured or who have died in the attacks, and many associations and their members are integrally involved in the efforts to recover and respond to the terrible events.

As the initial shock subsides, reactions vary from one person to another. The following, however, are normal responses to a traumatic event:

(Source: American Psychological Association,

Many of these reactions, while painful, have initial value because they enable human beings to survive and recover from life-threatening experiences.  The physical, cognitive and emotional reactions to trauma are specialized responses increasing the chances of safety in a dangerous environment.  We are restless and easily startled due to hyper-vigilance for new dangers.  It is difficult to think about anything else so that we may be cognizant and immediately take action if new threats arise.  Our intensely uncomfortable feelings spur us to move to confront the threat or remove ourselves from it.  All of these reactions are meant to handle short-term, immediate threat.

However, due to the extreme nature of the tragedy, there is a substantive risk that individuals will experience severe stress symptoms including feeling completely unreal or outside oneself; having terrifying memories, nightmares or flashbacks; taking unhealthy measures to avoid memories by abusing alcohol or other drugs; being devoid of emotion; or experiencing extreme anxiety, rage or depression.  As many as one in three rescue workers will have trouble with these severe reactions.  If you or someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms, it is important to seek professional help.

Here are some practical suggestions that will help you to work through this trauma while maintaining your health:

1.  Treat the grief reactions experienced in the wake of the trauma as normal.  Although they are painful, the emotions are part of the process of healing.  Do not avoid the pain or numb your feelings by overusing alcohol or drugs.  Give yourself permission to feel sad and angry.

2.  Concurrently, be careful not to let yourself become inundated by the tragedy.  Balance is very important.  Try to take a break from the news, ingest less information, or limit exposure to disturbing images.

3.  Take care of yourself.  Monitor your diet; obtain sufficient rest and exercise.  Be attentive when driving.  Spend time with people you care about and ask for the emotional and practical support that fits your needs.  Make room for humor.

4.  Become involved in helping others.  When tragedy strikes, an intuitive and healthy response involves taking action.  Helping others is a very healing action.  The helping need not be directly related to the attacks.  Helping the person you meet in the store or the neighbor across the street benefits both that person and you.

5.  Incorporate your spirituality as a coping resource.  Evaluate your values and make certain that you are living a life that honors those values. Take time for prayer and meditation.  Living congruently with your sense of purpose gives meaning to the suffering in your life and helps you to transcend the difficulties you face.

6.  As the tragedies of September 11 were the result of a hostile attack, a normal response is anger at the attackers.  Do not give in to the impulse to seek revenge (this is different than standing up to the attackers).  The desire to make others hurt as much as you were hurt is toxic to your well-being.  And inflicting suffering on other innocent people will not rectify the suffering of the innocent people who were directly affected by the terrorist attacks.

7.  If you continue to experience significant physical, cognitive and emotional reactions beyond one month, seek professional help. 


Local chapters of the American Red Cross may be able to direct you to additional resources. Check your local telephone directory for the chapter nearest you.

“Talk to Someone Who Can Help” (, brochure about psychotherapy and choosing a psychologist from the American Psychological Association can be ordered free of charge. Call 800-964-2000.

”A Terrible Thing Happened” ( is a story for children who have witnessed a violent or traumatic event.

National Organization for Victims Assistance, 1757 Park Rd., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20010; toll-free, 1-800-TRY-NOVA; in D.C. metropolitan area, (202) 232-6682.

”Emotional Reactions to Disasters” ( University of
Illinois Cooperative Extension Service

“Bereavement: Time to Embrace the Paradox of Loss.” James W. Garner, CISW, CSAC, Executive Coach, Specialist in Critical Incident Debriefing and treatment of post traumatic stress disorders.  Write or call (480) 963-8185.

Dr. John Weaver, Business Psychologist and Coach can be reached at or by calling (262) 544-9918.

Dr. Jennifer Walters, Psychotherapist and Coach can be reached at or by calling (505) 473-7754.