Anxiety in America -- Terror's Aftermath
How Bad Is It, When Will It Go Away, and What Can We Do to Cope?
Dec. 26, 2001 -- Our whole world changed on Sept. 11, leaving us in a state of high anxiety. The most mundane events now seem ominous. The sound of planes flying overhead once evoked daydreams of exotic destinations. Now, they remind us of mass destruction. Our pulse races as we open the mail, not from hope of an awaited letter, but from fear of inhalation anthrax.
"Immediately after the Sept. 11 attack, anxiety was rampant," Margaret Gibbs, PhD, a professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, NJ, tells WebMD. "Many people could not leave their TVs, had nightmares and disrupted sleep, and physical symptoms like headaches and upset stomachs."
Empty airplanes and tourist attractions, rising gun sales, and a stagnant economy all attest to pervasive anxiety. We're suspicious of those who look, dress, or act differently. Some of us cope by hoarding antibiotics, buying gas masks, wearing gloves to open the mail, or avoiding bridges and tunnels.
When will our anxiety go away, and what can we do about it in the meantime?
"The emotional impact of September's terrorist attacks continues to reverberate throughout the country and around the world," says Danny Kaloupek, PhD. "Of particular importance then and now is the perception that collective safety has been undermined."
Beyond Our Personal Control
Kaloupek, deputy director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the VA Boston Healthcare System, refers to a random phone survey of 560 American adults, conducted Sept. 14-16.
This study by Mark A. Schuster, MD, PhD, of RAND in Santa Monica, CA, published in the Nov. 15 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, showed that 44% of adults throughout the country reported one or more major symptoms of stress, and 90% had one or more minor symptoms.
Nor were children immune to anxiety. More than one-third had at least onesymptom, and nearly half were worried about theirown safety or the safety of loved ones.
"The report highlighted the impact of media, particularly television, in making the mass destruction and death a shared experience," Kaloupek tells WebMD. "Uncertainty about further attacks -- heightened by the reality of malicious anthrax mailings -- has created a pervasive sense of threat that likely keeps the distressing memories and emotions alive."
While we have all confronted risk and danger in our daily lives, even before Sept. 11, certain aspects of this disaster tend to keep us all on edge, explains Scott Geller, PhD, a professor and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
This tragedy was catastrophic, unusual, and beyond our personal control, unlike the familiar risks we experience every day, such as driving in our cars or working in dangerous job environments. We did not choose to take the risks involved in exposure to terrorist attacks, anthrax in the mail, or future bioterrorist, chemical, or nuclear threats. This makes them far more frightening and stressful.