Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Fall 2001

Dealing With Tragedy

Just as our fall issue was going to press, the world was stunned by the horrific acts of terrorism to our country. In the hope of offering our readers support in the aftermath of these events, we put aside that planned publication.

There are no "correct" ways to deal with such horrific events. What you are experiencing in this tragedy is dependent on many factors. Just like your physical closeness to the epicenters of explosions determines the extent of physical damage, your closeness to the psychological epicenters may determine the extent of the psychological damage. Those injured in the buildings and hijacked planes and those with family as victims will be more affected than those who knew somebody who knew somebody…

Reactions are also dependent on your own history and resilience. A history of childhood trauma may limit resilience in adulthood. Although new traumas can bring up old ones, any past trauma that has moved to a healthy resolution can strengthen your resilience, leading some to conclude, "What doesn't kill you makes you strong."

Stages of Coping

You and those around you will go through various stages and recycle through stages sometimes in unexpected ways. While there are many models to organize what people go through when they are dealing with trauma and tragedy, we are using a model loosely based on one developed by Canadian physician, Hans Selye, who noticed the similarity of coping responses in a wide variety of illnesses. Other researchers have since applied the same stages to psychological stress.

1. Alarm Initially you may be so shocked by the event as it is unfolding that you do not believe your own sense experience of seeing, hearing, or feeling. Manhattan office workers observing the planes crashing into the World Trade Center reported thinking that some kind of filming was being done for a movie.

People often feel a sense of unreality and numbness. If you first hear of an upsetting news event from another person, you think the person is giving you the set-up to a very sick joke. You might even say, "You're kidding, right?"

2. Resistance During this stage, your whole body/ mind system goes into super-coping mode. In this stage, people do things that they don't even remember later. The well-trained instincts of rescue workers guided them to heroic actions while perceived they as "just doing their jobs."

Even ordinary citizens can act quickly with seeming disregard for their own safety and are surprised by the energy and strength they didn't know possible. In the Twin Towers stairwells, evacuating office workers carried heavy wheel chairs they would not have been able to lift in their normal lives.

Those who only experienced the trauma by watching their TV screens also felt compelled by natural empathy to acts of altruism such as enduring five-hour long lines to donate blood.

At the same time, you may experience a heightened sense of anxious vigilance. Difficulty sleeping, desiring escape from feelings, snapping at those around you indicate your nervous system is on overload.

3. Reaction Dr. Selye originally called this stage "exhaustion" because if stress continues with no coping, the body exhausts. Even with adequate coping people are amazed how tired they feel after expending the high energy of the previous stage. You have seen pictures of the New York firefighters leaning against lampposts as they take a break from digging through the rubble.

Feelings of personal fear and threat, anger, sadness, grieving, depression, and restlessness are all normal at this stage.

New information such as finding out that a friend or loved one was directly affected by the terrorism can send you back into the alarm stage. Your feelings can change from moment to moment.

It is not unusual to do things that seem strange such as staying glued to the TV set when you normally don't watch daytime TV. Some people clean closets or act as though nothing of any importance is going on.

It is not unusual to feel guilty at being a survivor when coworkers were hurt or to feel relieved to locate family members and then to feel guilty that others will not get such happy news. Just like giggling and crying at the same time are normal releases of tension at funerals, they also occur in the midst of unusual stress.

4. Long-term coping While many of the above reactions happen so quickly and automatically they seem outside conscious awareness, in this stage choice begins to return. You may question whether to cancel a party out of respect for the many victims of the terrorism or to go on with the party so that you refuse to let the terrorism continue to terrorize. There are no right answers.

You may just think you have it back together only to have a nightmare or a crying spell.

5. Resolution On the one hand, the magnitude of the events of September 11 will be felt for the rest of history. On the other hand, some normalcy will return to those not directly in the psychological epicenter. Working, playing with your kids, and traveling will again feel pleasurable. None of these desires dishonor those who have suffered. A return to normal activities repre-sents the hope that good will triumph over evil. The key will be to retain the perspective of renewed priorities.

Tips for Healthy Coping

In the days immediately following this tragic time you may have a natural instinct to hunker down with family and friends. Talk out your feelings with adults close to you. Don't, however, process your concerns with young children at a time when they need reassurance.

Instead, listen to your children. Answer their questions as simply as you can. It is OK to say, "I don't understand myself how people can hurt other people like this."

Do not give children false reassurance that they are safe. It is a promise you cannot keep. Instead model how you are handling all of this and provide reassurance in concrete ways with family time and familiar rituals. Doing normal things at an abnormal time really helps keep the perspective that in the midst of all the suffering life does go on.

If you are fortunate to have a living spouse, cling to one another and pray for others less fortunate. Tragedies can help us regain the perspective that many of our marital arguments are not where we want to put our energies. Deepen your commitment to manage conflict better. World peace begins in your home.

As you move through these stages you will naturally want to resume your normal activities. On the minds of many is the question of when are we going to be safe and secure again. You won't be - at least not in the naïve way you might have been. It is as if our whole nation has lost its sense of adolescent invincibility and realized that we are not as safe as we imagined we were.

No tightened airport security, important though it is to lower the probability of acts of ter-rorism being carried out, will give you security. Ultimately, you must create security in your inner core through your values, your faith, and your sense of community.

How to Know You Need Professional Help

Unless you are close to that psychological epicenter of trauma you will probably move through the stages within days or weeks.

If these symptoms persist, seek the help of a counselor trained in crisis methods: nightmares, sleep disturbance, anxiety attacks, numbness, dwelling on flashbacks, loss of appetite, and inability to do normal activities like work and hobbies.

To find someone in your area trained in critical incident debriefing call the referral service of your state psychological association. In Maryland the number is (410) 992-4258.

Marriage Renewal Opportunities

Our own contribution during this difficult time is to renew our mission to increase peace and love by helping people strengthen their marriages and families.

Copyright 2001 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information:

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