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The American Psyche, Post-9/11

How 9/11 Changed Us

Reshaping Personal Lives

"Sept. 11 was a terrible loss -- not just in terms of lost life, but in terms of a lost way of life," says Yael Danieli, PhD, a New York City clinical psychologist, and a founding director of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. She believes that a "new normality" must be established that incorporates uncertainty, including a greater readiness for "anything." She adds, "It means accepting that nothing will ever be the same again. This may feel bad, but it's realistic."

For many, the way they live and the decisions they make in their day-to-day life are still being influenced by 9/11. "It affects what they tell and how they raise their children, where they send them to school, their relationship to their work, and whether they want to remain in a job that's in a high-rise building, especially downtown," says Danieli. "People are also making these decisions in a poor economic atmosphere, so even though they may want to leave their jobs, they're afraid they may not find another one."

Anger and Optimism

Many Americans have reacted angrily to the events of Sept. 11, and according to recent research, these individuals tend to have a more optimistic outlook on the future than those who have responded with fear.

Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, cognitive psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, says, "Anger in some complicated way makes people more optimistic." These angry reactions to 9/11 -- and the optimism that can accompany it -- are seen more in men than in women, while women are more likely to feel fearful, says Fischhoff.

The Carnegie Mellon researchers have also concluded that a substantial minority of Americans see themselves as vulnerable to future terrorism. The surveyed adults said they had a 21% chance of being injured in a terrorist attack within the next year, which the researchers describe as "a very gloomy view." But according to Fischhoff, people tend to see themselves as less vulnerable than the "average American," who they believe has a 48% chance of terrorism-related injuries within the next year.

The effect of the terrorist attacks on the mental health of Americans was also reflected in a study commissioned by the American Psychological Association, which surveyed 1,900 Americans in early 2002. About one in four adults said they felt more depressed or anxious than at other times in their life, with the Sept. 11 events key contributors to those symptoms (along with factors such as financial difficulties). More than three-quarters of Americans surveyed said they are reexamining and have tried simplifying their lives and are focusing more on "what really matters."

Elusive "Quick Fixes"

Especially in New York City, life seems to have changed forever in the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, says Danieli. Americans tend to like quick fixes, she says, preferring immediate cleanup and rebuilding, then moving on. "But," she adds, "Sept. 11 is not a finished, finite event that happened and ended on that day, as though it were a natural disaster. People are still living with a great deal of uncertainty, including lingering threats of other forms of terrorism, and an ongoing and perhaps an upcoming war. There is no 'back to normal' after this kind of catastrophe."

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