9/11 coverage brings back painful memories

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 6, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Many people count Sept. 11, 2001 among the worst days in their life.
We are about to relive it.
As the country prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, intense media coverage of events a decade ago could trigger difficult emotions.
Dozens of TV programs will air this week, telling heartbreaking 9/11 stories about everything from the ongoing health problems of Ground Zero rescue workers to the never-before-heard audio recordings of people trapped inside the World Trade Center. Documentaries and interviews will feature people who lost their twin in the attacks, dogs that helped survivors cope and the hunt for Islamic militants.
While viewing some media coverage can help people remember and honor victims of the tragedies, the onslaught of TV specials, newspaper coverage, radio programs and Internet webcasts with repeated airings of footage from the attacks also can cause stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and even depression, mental health professionals say.
“The first thing people should be mindful of is how much they can tolerate,” said Dr. Craig Chepke, a pyschiatrist at Rowan Regional Medical Center who had been a medical student in New York City for one week on Sept. 11, 2001. “If you know it’s going to hurt more than it helps, turn it off.”
Many people who view 9/11 footage this week will immediately recall where they were 10 years ago when they watched events unfold in real time or experienced more direct exposure to the trauma, said Allison Crotty, director of consumer affairs for PBH, formerly Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare, in Kannapolis.
“Strange and disturbing feelings we felt then may rush back,” Crotty said in an email to the Post.
People should avoid overexposure by resisting the temptation to watch coverage over and over again or overdo Facebook posts and Twitter trails, which could lead to focusing on the negative and creating stress and anxiety, Crotty said.
Anniversary dates of traumatic events can reactivate thoughts and feelings from the actual event, according to psychologist Dr. Susan Silk of the American Psychological Association’s Disaster Response Network.
Around an anniversary, people are likely to remember events clearly and many will feel emotions more intensely than usual. Reliving the sadness is a natural part of the healing process, Silk said on the association’s website.
While those who witnessed the destruction of 9/11 firsthand or lost a loved one are most at risk this week for depression or anxiety, nearly everyone will have some kind of reaction to media coverage, Chepke said.
“Every American that day was terrified,” he said.
Beyond the Twin Towers
On Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers flew two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Both towers collapsed within two hours, destroying nearby buildings and killing 2,753 people, including 343 firefighters, 60 police officers and eight paramedics.
Another 184 people died when a third plane was flown into the Pentagon, the U.S. military headquarters in Arlington, Va. A fourth plane, hijacked and redirected towards Washington, D.C., crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers tried to regain control. Everyone on board was killed.
“The terror wasn’t just confined to the World Trade Center. There was also the plane that went down in Pennsylvania and the Pentagon attack,” Chepke said. “No one knew where the next plane was going to hit.”
Recalling the uncertainty, shock and disturbing images from that day can cause problems even for people who weren’t there or didn’t lose a loved one, he said. “Those buildings were targeted because of their symbolism,” he said. “They were specifically chosen as targets to strike terror in the hearts of all Americans.”
People who feel overwhelmed by media coverage of 9/11 should reach out to friends and family and avoid isolation, Chepke said. Maintain a routine, including getting enough rest and eating regular meals, he said.
Consider attending a memorial service on the anniversary, if that won’t cause more anxiety, Chepke suggested. The Post on Thursday will publish a list of local Sept. 11 anniversary events.
“People tend to hold things in, not dealing with it, and it can be cathartic to grieve and bring it out in the open,” he said.
Find something positive
Crotty advised focusing on the positive events surrounding 9/11, recalling the patriotism that was initiated and community engagement that ensued.
“Engaging our thoughts in a positive direction will begin to calm our triggered emotional reactions,” she said.
Through its online Psychology Help Center, the American Psychological Association offers resources and guides to help people cope with media coverage of 9/11 and the 10th anniversary itself. Go to www.apa.org/helpcenter to access the information.
“There is no one right way to heal. Try not to compare your reactions to those of others,” the website recommends. “Each person is different, and each individual will find his or her own way of coping with the memories.”
While feeling sad, irritable or unfocused is normal, people should become concerned if anxiety or sadness starts to disrupt their work, school or home life, Chepke said.
People have a wide range of normal stress reactions depending on their history of trauma, current emotional status and other personal traits, Crotty said.
Stress reactions affect the body and mind. People may have recurrent thoughts of the traumatic images, increased fear, anxiety related to what could happen, nervousness, sleep disturbance, vivid dreams involving being attacked and sadness.
“If you experience symptoms that last more than a month or that are interfering with normal activities, you should seek help,” Crotty said.
Ways to cope
• Limit exposure to media coverage
• Avoid overuse of stimulants such as caffeine
• Talk with others about similar reactions and fears
• Exercise, pray or meditate
• Show affection to family members or pets
• Commit to something personally or socially meaningful
• Maintain a normal routine
• Attend a memorial service
• Think positively
• Seek help from a mental health professional.

Share your memories and view other remembrances from 2001 at www.salisburypost.com/911/

 Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.