Coping After Terrorism
information in this handbook is intended to help you understand your reactions
to an act of terrorism or mass violence. It is not intended to be a substitute
for the role of professionals with expertise in counseling trauma victims.
Nothing in life can prepare you for the horror of an act of terrorism
that robs you of your sense of security and, in some instances, a loved
one. No one expects such a thing to happen. Violent crime is an abnormal
event, and terrorism is even more rare. The normal reactions to this type
of traumatic disaster include a wide range of powerful feelings that may
feel abnormal to the person having them or seem strange to those who have
not gone through such a disaster. You may feel like something is wrong
with you and that the terrible pain will never ease up.
Recovering from a traumatic event will take a long time and will not
be easy. Everyone responds differently to trauma. No one reacts in a right
or wrong wayjust differently. It will help your recovery process
if you do not expect too much of yourself and of others.
Reactions to a Traumatic Disaster
Shock and Numbness
At first you may be in a state of shock and may feel numb and confused.
You also may feel detachedas if you are watching a movie or having
a bad dream that will not end. This numbness protects you from feeling
the full impact of what has happened all at once.
You may feel overpowered by sorrow and grief. As shock begins
to wear off, it is not unusual to feel intense grief and cry uncontrollably.
While some parts of our society frown on emotional behavior, this emotional
release is an important part of grieving for most people. It is unhealthy
to hold back or swallow your painful feelings and can actually
make the grieving process last longer. If you are uncomfortable with these
feelings, you may want to seek help from a counselor or minister or other
victims who understand what you are going through.
You may feel intense fear and startle easily, become extremely
anxious when you leave your home or are alone, or experience waves of
panic. Someone you love has been suddenly and violently killed while going
about his or her daily life. You had no time to prepare psychologically
for such an incident, so you may feel intense anxiety and horror. You
may be afraid that the terrorist will return and harm you or your loved
ones again. Crime shatters normal feelings of security and trust and the
sense of being able to control events. Once you have been harmed by crime,
it is natural to be afraid and suspicious of others. These feelings will
go away or lessen over time.
Victims who were injured in the traumatic disaster want to understand
why the crime happened, and families wonder why they lost a loved one.
Some people find it easier to accept what happened if they can blame themselves
in some way. This is a normal way of trying to once again feel a sense
of control over their lives. Victims often feel guilt and regret for things
they did or did not say or do and that they should have protected a loved
one better or have done something to prevent his or her death. Survivors
spend a lot of time thinking, If only I had . . . . This guilt
does not make sense because the circumstances that lead to terrorism usually
cannot be controlled and are hard to predict. Get rid of imagined guilt.
You did the best you could at the time. If you are convinced that you
made mistakes or have real guilt, consider professional or spiritual counseling.
You will need to find a way to forgive yourself. Feelings of guilt can
be made worse by people who point out what they would have done differently
in the same situation. People who say such things are usually trying to
convince themselves that such a tragedy could never happen to them.
Anger and Resentment
It is natural for you to be angry and outraged at the tragedy, the
person or persons who caused the tragedy, or someone you believe could
have prevented the crime. If a suspect is arrested, you might direct your
anger toward that person. You may become angry with other family members,
friends, doctors, police, prosecutors, God, or even yourself and may resent
well-meaning people who say hurtful things and do not understand what
youas a victimare going through.
Feelings of anger may be very intense, and the feelings may come and
go. You also may daydream about revenge, which is normal and can be helpful
in releasing rage and frustration.
Feelings of anger are a natural part of the recovery process. These feelings
are not right or wrong; they are simply feelings. It is important to recognize
the anger as real but to not use it as an excuse to abuse or hurt others.
There are safe and healthy ways to express anger. Many people find that
writing down their feelings, exercising, doing hard physical work, beating
a pillow, or crying or screaming in privacy helps them release some of
the anger. Ignoring feelings of anger and resentment may cause physical
problems such as headaches, upset stomachs, and high blood pressure. Anger
that goes on a long time may cover up other more painful feelings such
as guilt, sadness, and depression.
Depression and Loneliness
Depression and loneliness are often a large part of trauma for victims.
It may seem that these feelings will last forever. Trials are sometimes
delayed for months and even years in our criminal justice system. Once
the trial day comes, the trial and any media coverage means having to
relive the events surrounding the traumatic disaster. Feelings of depression
and loneliness are even stronger when a victim feels that no one understands.
This is the reason a support group for victims is so important; support
group members will truly understand such feelings.
Victims of traumatic disaster may feel that it is too painful to keep
living and may think of suicide. If these thoughts continue, you must
find help. Danger signals to watch for include (1) thinking about suicide
often, (2) being alone too much, (3) not being able to talk to other people
about what you are feeling, (4) sudden changes in weight, (5) continued
trouble sleeping, and (6) using too much alcohol or other drugs (including
You may feel that you are different from everyone else and that others
have abandoned you. Terrorism is an abnormal and unthinkable act, and
people are horrified by it. Injury by terrorism carries with it a stigma
for the victim that can leave him or her feeling abandoned and ashamed.
Other people may care but still find it hard or uncomfortable to be around
you. You are a reminder that terrorism can happen to anyone. They also
cannot understand why you feel and act the way you do because they have
not gone through it.
Physical Symptoms of Distress
It is common to have headaches, fatigue, nausea, sleeplessness, loss
of sexual feelings, and weight gain or loss after a traumatic event. Also,
you may feel uncoordinated, experience lower backaches and chills/sweats,
twitch/shake, and grind your teeth.
Feelings of panic are common and can be hard to cope with. You may
feel like you are going crazy. Often, this feeling happens because traumatic
disasters like terrorism seem unreal and incomprehensible. Your feelings
of grief may be so strong and overwhelming that they frighten you. It
can help a great deal to talk with other victims who have had similar
feelings and truly understand what these feelings are all about.
Inability To Resume Normal Activity
You may find that you are unable to function the way you did before
the act of terrorism and to return to even the simplest activities. It
may be hard to think and plan, life may seem flat and empty, and the things
that used to be enjoyable may now seem meaningless. You may not be able
to laugh, and when you finally do, you may feel guilty. Tears come often
and without warning. Mood swings, irritability, dreams, and flashbacks
about the crime are common. These feelings may come several months after
the disaster. Your friends and coworkers may not understand the grief
that comes with this type of crime and the length of time you will need
to recover. They may simply think it is time for you to put the disaster
behind you and get on with normal life. Trust your own feelings and travel
the hard road to recovery at your own pace.
Some individuals will experience no immediate reaction. They may be
energized by a stressful situation and not react until weeks or months
later. This type of delayed reaction is not unusual and, if you begin
to have some of the feelings previously discussed, you should consider
talking with a professional counselor.
Other victims and survivors of traumatic disasters who have been where
you are have offered some practical suggestions of things you can do to
help you cope and begin to heal:
- Remember to breathe. Sometimes when people are afraid or very upset,
they stop breathing. When you are scared or upset, close your eyes and
take deep, slow breaths until you calm down. Taking a walk or talking
to a close friend can also help.
- Whenever possible, delay making any major decisions. You may think
a big change will make you feel better, but it will not necessarily
ease the pain. Give yourself time to get through the most hectic times
and to adjust before making decisions that will affect the rest of your
Simplify your life for a while. Make a list of the things you are
responsible for, such as taking care of the kids, buying groceries,
teaching Sunday school, or going to work. Then, look at your list and
see which things are absolutely necessary. Is there anything you can
put aside for a while? Are there things you can let go of completely?
- Take care of your mind and body. Eat healthy food. Exercise regularly,
even if it is only a long walk every day. Exercise will help lift depression
and help you sleep better, too. Massages can also help release tension
and comfort you.
- Avoid using alcohol and other drugs. These substances may temporarily
block the pain, but they will keep you from healing. You have to experience
your feelings and look clearly at your life to recover from tragedy.
- Keep the phone number of a good friend nearby to call when you feel
overwhelmed or have a panic attack.
- Talk to a counselor, clergy member, friend, family member, or other
survivors about what happened. It is common to want to share your experience
over and over againand it can be helpful for you to do so.
- Begin to restore order in your world by reestablishing old routines
at work, home, or school as much as possible. Stay busy with work that
occupies your mind, but do not throw yourself into frantic activity.
- Ask questions. You may have concerns about what types of assistance
are available, who will pay for your travel and other expenses, and
other issues concerning compensation and insurance. Find out what will
be expected of you in the days to come so you can plan ahead for any
new or stressful circumstances.
- Talk to your children, who are often the invisible victims, and make
sure they are part of your reactions, activities, and plans. Involve
them in funerals and memorials if they want to be involved.
- Organize and plan how you will deal with the media. It may be helpful
to include family, friends, or other victims or survivors in your planning
process. You do NOT have to speak to the media. It is up to you to decide
how much, if any, involvement you will have with the media. Any contact
should be on your terms.
- Seek the help of a reputable attorney if you think you need legal
advice. Take time to make decisions about insurance settlements, legal
actions, and other matters that have long-term consequences.
- Rely on people you trust. Seek information, advice, and help from
them. Remember that although most people are honest and trustworthy,
some unscrupulous individuals will try to take advantage of victims
in the aftermath of a disaster.
- Avoid doing upsetting things right before bed if you are having trouble
sleeping. Designate 30 minutes sometime earlier in the day as your worry
time. Do not go to bed before you are tired. Write down your fears
and nightmares. Put on quiet music or relaxation tapes. If you still
cannot sleep, do not get mad at yourself and worry about not getting
sleep. You can still rest by lying quietly and listening to relaxing
music or by reading a good book. If your sleeping problems continue,
you may want to see your doctor.
- Find small ways to help others, as it will help ease your own suffering.
- Ask for help from family, friends, or professionals when you need
it. Healing grief and loss is similar to healing your body after an
illness or accident. Just as there are doctors and nurses who are trained
to help heal the body, there are professionals who are trained to help
people recover from loss and cope with emotional pain.
- Think about the things that give you hope. Make a list of these things
and turn to them on bad days.
It is important to remember that emotional pain is not endless. It does
have limits. The pain will eventually ease, and the joys of life will
return. There will be an ebb and flow to your grief. When it is there,
let yourself feel it. When it is gone, let it go. You are not responsible
or obligated to keep the pain alive. Smiles, laughter, and the ability
to feel joy in the good things of life will return in time.
Victims are forever changed by the experience of terrorism. They realize
that although things will never be the same, they can face life with new
understanding and new meaning. Many things have been lost, but many things
remain. Overcoming even the greatest tragedies is possible and can help
bring about change and hope for others.
Whatever you are facing or feeling at the moment, it is important to
remember that each person copes with tragedy in his or her own way. Trust
your own feelingsthat what you are feeling is what you need to feel
and that it is normal. Do not act like things are fine when they are not.
Healing begins by talking about what happened with people you trustpeople
who support you without being judgmental or giving unwanted advice about
what you should do or how you should feel.
Most people find it helpful to talk with a professional counselor who has
worked with other crime survivors. Sometimes just a few sessions with a
trained counselor will help you resolve the anger, guilt, and despair that keep
you from recovering. Also, talking with other victims of violent crime may help
you feel better understood and less alone.