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Anxiety in America -- Terror's Aftermath

How Bad Is It, When Will It Go Away, and What Can We Do to Cope?

Beyond Our Personal Control continued...

"Situations where we perceive personal control, like driving, do not seem risky," Geller says. "People take risks everyday from driving to skiing down steep slopes without feeling at risk because they chose to take those risks and they felt in control of the situation."

While more people have died in motor vehicle accidents since Sept. 11 than were killed on that tragic day by terrorists, media coverage of individuals losing loved ones or narrowly escaping death has much greater emotional impact than do statistics, Geller explains.

"Traumatic events of this magnitude typically increase the anxiety of all and will consequently have an effect on the behavior of many," says Michele M. Carter, PhD, a psychologist at American University in Washington, DC. "As long as another attack doesn't occur, and as time passes we all have a tendency to return to a reasonable approximation of our normal routines."


The experts agree that for most of us, anxiety should begin to subside within a few months. But Gibbs points out that those more directly exposed to the trauma -- who were in or near Ground Zero or who lost loved ones in the attacks -- are more vulnerable to persistent problems.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are normal during the first few weeks following trauma, says Karestan C. Koenen, PhD, a psychiatric epidemiologist at the Columbia School of Public Health in New York City. These may include nightmares, jumpiness, brooding over what happened, avoiding reminders of the event, and difficulty sleeping. Children may refuse to go to sleep, cry when going to school, or regress to thumb sucking or bed wetting. Adults may have angry outbursts, or resort to alcohol or drug abuse, or domestic violence.

But if these symptoms persist, or interfere with daily life, individuals should seek professional help.

"Is anxiety interfering with your ability to concentrate at work? Are you getting very little sleep because of nightmares?" Koenen asks. "Have you stopped socializing because you don't want to ride the subway? Are you constantly on edge, irritable toward your spouse or children?"

If you answer yes to these questions, Koenen recommends consulting a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker experienced in treating trauma survivors.

"The important thing for people to know is that they are not crazy. Many ... can be treated effectively with psychotherapy in a relatively brief period and then can go on with their lives," she says.

How to Cope?

Even if you don't need professional help, there are things you can do to cope with the stress of constantly being on "high alert."

"Terrorism works by making us feel helpless, so to deal with it, we need to find all the ways we can to control our lives," Gibbs says. "Living our ordinary lives in the usual way makes us feel better."

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