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Growing Past the Trauma of Sept. 11

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 2002 – As the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, people may find themselves experiencing emotions they felt they were past.

The anniversary may reawaken the trauma many people experienced, said psychologist Victor Welzant of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. He spoke to a Pentagon audience Aug. 28 about what to expect as Sept. 11 approaches. The Pentagon Employee Referral Service sponsored the presentation.

"This is a time to be really tolerant of each other," Welzant said. "People are going to have to work together and talk together, and together we can get through this."

He said that all people mark anniversaries. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries are typical celebrations around the world. People around the world also mark anniversaries of "life changing" events -- and Sept. 11, he said, certainly fits into that category.

As the day approaches, people affected may experience a number of reactions. "All this is perfectly normal," Welzant said.

Those closest to the tragedy are likely to be affected most, he said. Those affected may experience memories, dreams, thoughts and feelings about the event. They may experience feelings of grief, sadness or regret.

They may become afraid or anxious or angry. They may wish to avoid people or places that trigger these memories. Finally, they may feel the need to reflect on the incident and how it changed their lives.

"Again, all this is perfectly normal," Welzant said, so people should not believe they are strange or somehow crazy.

Psychologist Mary Lindahl of Marymount University in Arlington, Va., said that translating these feelings into words helps. "After such seismic events, many people wrote poetry, kept journals or just detailed what happened," she told the audience. "Tests show this reduces blood pressure."

She said that the opposite also generally holds true. "If you try to keep your feelings inside, it takes a toll on your body," she said. "It is work for the body to try to keep those feelings inside." This shows with higher blood pressure, facial tics and other physical manifestations.

Lindahl said that many who suffered the trauma of Sept. 11 would come out of the experience stronger. "It's just like a broken bone," she said. "When it finally heals, it is stronger than before."

She said research shows that those who go through events they call "a psychological earthquake" often find it easier to express emotions. They are more compassionate and giving and have a greater appreciation for life.

All religions have this tenet of growing past the pain, she said. "In Christianity, first there is the cross, then the Resurrection," Lindahl said. "While no one would choose to go through this pain, they can grow because of it."

She cited the founders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving as an example of people who took pain they suffered and grew from it.

Lindahl and Welzant both stressed that people going through this experience are not alone. "The message is that whatever your personal situation, no matter what stage of grief you are in, we are all in this together," Lindahl said. "We can help each other, and we can become stronger in the broken places."

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