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9/11 Lingers in Mind and Body

Health and psychological effects of 9/11 are still emerging and far-reaching.

Psychological Effects Near and Far

The screening program in New York has also revealed that about 20% of the workers and volunteers involved in World Trade Center recovery efforts caused some element of psychological impairment, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or symptoms related to them such as depression and anxiety.

Trauma researcher Roxone Cohen Silver, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine, says that in order for a person to be diagnosed with PTSD they would have to have been directly exposed to the traumatic event. But that doesn't mean that the psychological effects of a major national trauma are limited to people who live in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

Silver conducted a study that measured symptoms of anxiety and depression that closely mirror post-traumatic stress disorder among a nationwide sample of Americans at various intervals after 9/11. Long-term data from the study is currently being analyzed, but the results after six months were published in TheJournal of the American Medical Association last year.

Silver says the study showed about 60% the participants said they saw the attacks occur live on TV and watched them in real time, which constitutes a different kind of exposure.

She says PTSD-like symptoms, such as nightmares, ruminations, anxiety, and avoiding reminders of the attacks, have clearly declined since the early days after 9/11. But there are also other ways in which the attacks have played out in the national psyche.

For example, Silver points to the reactions to the recent blackout on the East Coast.

"Most people that I spoke to immediately hypothesized that the blackout might be the result of some kind of terrorist activity. In 1965, probably no one generated that as hypothesis for what happened with the blackout on the East Coast," Silver tells WebMD.

Silver says this type of ongoing anxiety and uncertainty about terrorist activity on our soil will certainly continue to impact many Americans over time in ways that are impossible to predict. But feelings of anxiety and depression aren't necessarily symptoms of a psychological disorder.

"We felt that these symptoms were a normal reaction to abnormal trauma rather than signs of serious psychopathology," says Silver. "Ongoing anxiety is not an unjustifiable reaction at this point in our history."

However, when those symptoms start to interfere with a person's daily functions, they might be signs of a more serious problem. The study showed that people with a prior history of mental problems were more likely to develop a psychological disorder, such as depression or anxiety disorders, following 9/11.

Recovery Is a Long Road

While the physical wounds of 9/11 can be eased by medical treatment, experts say that only time can help heal the psychological scars left by the terrorist attacks.

Silver says research on the long-term effects of trauma suggests that Americans will continue to feel the psychological effects of 9/11 for many years to come.

"I think an assumption that we will bounce back and get back to where we were on September 10th would be a myth," says Silver. "Most individuals who have encountered major life traumas indicate that recovery doesn't mean forgetting but learning to live with consequences of a changed circumstance."

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