The Taconic Counseling Group

Marsha L. Shelov, Ph.D.

When the Unimaginable Happens - 9-11-01

Most of us remember where we were and how we learned about the Challenger .  We  remember Kennedy's assassination and some can recall the Cuban Missle Crisis.  We remember these events because they were highly emotionally charged.  We were afraid for ourselves and for our loved ones.  We remember  these events in our minds and our bodies. When an unexpected and horrible event happens our minds and our bodies record the event. On September 11, 2001 we experienced  such a traumatic event.


Almost instantly, in response to the sights and sounds of the event itself, our hearts pound, our mouths go dry, our muscles tense, our nerves go on alert and we feel intense anxiety, fear and or terror.  If there has been little or no warning, we may not immediately understand what is happening to us.  Shock, a sense of unreality, and fear dominate.  Long after  the event the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of the it persist as indelible  images in our memories.


If you or a loved one is in danger of death we are thrown into an automatic physiologically response.  We go to a survival response mode, a flight, fight or freeze pattern.  The fear of dying and/or the fear of our loved ones dying invokes an involuntary response.  For many of us it is as if our thinking brain is captured by our early emotional brain. So what happens?  In our normal everyday  lives our senses send messages to a relay station in the brain (the thalamus); this information is then sent to our thinking brain (the neocortex), recognized and then sent back to our emotional brain (the limbic system) where we experience the emotional significance of the information, and we respond.  For example, our eyes take in a beautiful tree, information is sent to the thalamus, registered then sent to the neocortex, processed as  a beautiful tree. The information is then relayed down to the limbic system and where the signal indicates  there is no danger.  In the event of a highly charged frightening event, this whole orderly neurological process is overridden and we go into an emergency response pattern.  The incoming information goes straight to the amygdala ( a structure in our in the limbic system) and is processed as dangerous.  The information is sent to the next structure in this system (the hypothalamus)  and this, in turn, activates  the sympathetic nervous system readying us for fight or flight by secreting epinephrine and norepinephrine. The blood supply increases to those parts of the body to prepare us to respond by increasing respiration and heart rate.  Simultaneously cortisol is  released which will help halt the alarm reaction when the flight or fight has been successful.  It is very important to understand that the activation  of this system occurs automatically  and  is not under our conscious control.  We react even before the information goes to the neocortex, the thinking area of our brain.  And we react  quickly; much quicker than under everyday conditions, when we are able to think about how to respond and what to do.  If the perception in the limbic  system is that there is adequate strength, time and space for flight, then the body breaks into a run.  If the limbic perception  is that there is not time to flee but there is adequate strength to defend, then the body will fight.  If the limbic system perceives that there is nether  time nor strength for fight or flight and death could be imminent, then the body will freeze.


After this initial neurological-brain  response many emotional  reactions are common.  We can very quickly change from one feeling to another. Anything we feel in the beginning is normal. Some of the most common feelings are fear, anxiety, grief, hopelessness, confusion, helplessness, vulnerability, and suspiciousness. Additionally, one so distraught may  feel a sense of isolation, abandonment,  shame and anger.


Our bodies also respond.  Some of the common physical reactions are nausea, upset stomach, palpitations,  sweating, exhaustion, numbness,  muscle aches, and sleeplessness.  Additionally  we have thoughts about the events.  Some of the common thoughts are: I am so lucky; how could someone do this; I wanted to help and should have done more;  I cannot talk about it;  and, I feel guilty to be alive and well.


It is important to note that those who directly experience  the disaster (the primary victims) are not the only ones to feel its emotional effects.  "Secondary victims", the families of those directly affected, onlookers, observers, and relief workers who tried to rescue the primary victims also may experience serious emotional effects.  In response to the WTC event there were thousands of individuals who lost their lives,  thousands more who were family members and rescue workers, and millions who watched the events unfolding feeling uncertain about their own safely and the safety of loved ones.  Very often the primary victims and the secondary victims have similar emotional responses.  The major difference is in the degree and of intensity of their response.


In understanding a person's response to the WTC attack,  it helps to consider  proximity to the event, the extent of ones own personal loss, the threat to one's own life or the life of a loved one and one's prior experience with trauma.  After a traumatic  event  people feel vulnerable and often past experiences can emerge with a new intensity


Most of the intense emotional  reactions will last one month to six weeks and then begin at diminish. As human beings, we are very resilient and have a wide range of normal, self soothing and healing responses.  Initially  we may need to give ourselves permission to go on living. We need to connect to our loved ones. Contact your support system and spend time together. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself.  We cannot be good parents and friends if we are feeling depleted ourselves.  Think about what you did in the past to take care of yourself and begin to do it.  If you had a thought during this experience about changing your life in a way that would make it feel better,  don't lose this opportunity to try to put some action into place to make this change for yourself.  On the other hand, if you are considering a drastic change give yourself some time evaluate  this decision.  Also try to be active  in response to this trauma.  It is better to be actively  involved in joining together to heal.


If, however, you are still having the same painful feelings and thoughts a few months after September 11, 2001, you might want to consider talking to a professional  about what you are experiencing.