15 years later, atmosphere of anxiety remains


Lisa Cyr

Ailey O’Toole
  Staff Writer

Being only 6 years old on September 11, 2001, my memories of what happened that day are foggy. There is one thing that sticks out in my mind, one thing that I will never be able to forget: fear. The emotion ran rampant through everyone around me: my parents, teachers, neighbors and me.

Knowing that there were people in the world that wanted everyone in the towers to die and that there were more people like that in the world was enough to keep anyone up at night. I think this was shown on a national level.

Nothing has been the same since that day, but most of the changes have been hard to see.

Yes, policies have changed: airline security tightened, mail service was examined, restrictions on civil liberties were accepted. These were unavoidable inconveniences of everyday life that were instituted in hopes of better protecting Americans.

These changes came to pass, but the American landscape was altered in a much bigger way than security measures. On September 11, 2001, the terrorists flying those planes did much more than destroy buildings; they scarred the American psyche by destroying our sense of security.

In the weeks directly following the attacks, a survey of 668 Americans by the Institute of Social Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reported that 49 percent of participants felt their sense of safety and security had been shaken. And some 62 percent of respondents said they had difficulty sleeping. Because of this heightened sense of vulnerability, many Americans now harbor a disquieting fear—a fear of attack by unseen agents at unexpected times using unthinkable weapons.

Fear manifests itself in many ways. There are common phobias, such as the fear of spiders or small spaces, but there is also something called post-traumatic stress – fears that arise from memories of dramatic, sometimes life-threatening events.

The people who were most at risk to develop post-traumatic stress disorder were the people with direct, personal involvement in the tragedies, including individuals exposed to life-threatening danger themselves, those who watched the events unfold from nearby, and those who lost loved ones.

Because most Americans are far removed from New York City and Washington D.C., a different kind of fear arose among the masses: generalized anxiety, which creates an exaggerated fear response in people who have been emotionally scarred. This kind of anxiety presents itself as worries about potential catastrophes to an extent far beyond the normal fear response.

Jeff Rosen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Delaware, explained post 9/11 anxiety this way: “If you’re afraid of something that you know what it is, you can avoid it or diminish it in some way. This, there’s nothing to diminish.”

The scope of the 9/11 catastrophe was so large that it is near impossible for people to avoid circumstances in which something like that could happen again. The number of people being treated by mental health professionals for anxiety sky-rocketed after that horrific day. People were unable to leave their homes due to fear of another attack.

Though fifteen years have passed since the incident, anxiety over the security of our nation still runs high. As with any type of anxiety, doctors suggest exercise, talking about feelings with friends and family, keeping to routine eating and sleeping schedules, and continuing with the small pleasures of life, such as going for walks, in order to alleviate symptoms.

Another way to keep your stress levels low and maintain some semblance of peace is to limit exposure to news coverage and movies about the disaster. With the 15 anniversary of September 11 quickly approaching, there is sure to be plenty of coverage on TV and on the web.

“Obviously, we all want to be informed citizens,” Ellen Leibenluft, a physician at the National Institute of Mental Health, says. “But the other thing is to titrate the amount of brain time people spend on this.”

Leibenluft suggests that a way to mediate exposure is to read articles and listen to news, but don’t watch anything. “[With radio, anxious people] are less likely to have exposure to images that are going to be things that they see again and again in their minds.”

Repeated images of space-suit-clad first responders venturing into the rubble causes viewers to exaggerate the level of danger. Even though the average American is still more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash, the incessant focus on outcome rather than probability means that disasters such as 9/11 are on the forefront of the American consciousness.

As the anniversary approaches, the best way to calm anxiety you may be feeling over the event is to try to stay grounded and remind yourself of the likelihood that something like this would happen again. Talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling and try to work out your anxiety through conversation. Don’t let the fear overcome you.

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