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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Finding resilience Finding resilience (September 11, 2002)

Anniversary of Sept. 11 will cause anxiety, but positive results can come of it

by Jocelyn Dong

At the one-year mark after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some people, even miles away from Ground Zero, may be feeling anxious, sad or fearful.

Those emotions are entirely normal, according to Francine Toder, a Palo Alto psychologist who last year volunteered with the Red Cross at Ground Zero.

"Anniversary reactions are very common and understandable and expectable," she said. "People should understand that some things will be triggered. It's what the psyche does."

Even though reactions are to be expected, there is much that people can do to limit the stress, local mental-health professionals advise. It may be tempting to stare again at TV footage of the planes hitting the towers, and to play the scenes over in one's mind, but even as TV stations bring forth one special program after another, people should be aware of their limits.

"I'm encouraging people to turn off the TV if footage of 9/11 is shown over and over. We don't need to do that to ourselves. We need to develop our resilience," said Louise Stirpe-Gill, a San Jose psychologist who counseled families of victims on Flight 93.

She advises viewing programs selectively, focusing on ones that honor victims and survivors, or that show people putting their lives back together.

Anniversary events can be helpful in turning traumatic reactions into recovery. Attending memorial services, putting up a flag, saying a prayer, or donating money to a charity are all ways of coping with tragedy. The benefits include getting understanding and comfort from people who feel the same way you do, feeling a connection to a larger group, bringing closure, and increasing one's sense of personal control in light of uncontrollable events.

Another reason that anniversaries are important, according to Stirpe-Gill, is they provide people the chance to ask themselves what they can do differently in the future and how they can become more resilient or help family members cope better.

People tend to cope with such cataclysmic events in two ways, either as "recoverers" or as "lingerers," said Ted Dumas, a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University who studies chronic stress.

Recoverers actively try to overcome circumstances by exerting personal control. They also develop their ability to predict what's going to happen next.

Recoverers "are the people going about their daily lives. They have a strong social network. They're not holding worries in, unresolved. They're talking to people and getting different perspectives," he said.

On the other hand, lingerers tend to prolong stress by ruminating on things, even when there is no longer evidence around them to support their worries. They linger in a state of feeling helpless. Such behavior is dangerous, and can result in irritability, loss of sleep, poor appetite, not being able to relax, feeling hyper-vigilant or having a sense of dampened emotions. When those symptoms interfere with daily life, it's time to see a therapist.

Short of that, however, Dumas advocates using stress-management techniques such as exercise and proper diet to overcome the anxiety. (See sidebar.)

The events of last year caused many people, even those not directly associated with the tragedy, to become fearful. Right after the attacks, Francine Toder saw an upturn in the number of people who had become afraid. It was as if their day-to-day belief in their own safety was suddenly stripped away, she said.

For others, the event was a wake-up call. Perhaps confronting their mortality for the first time, they took time to think through how they were living their lives. Some changed careers.

Toder said that the event also changed people's relationships with one another because the attacks propelled them to share their feelings with co-workers and family members, sometimes for the first time. She expects that this anniversary will once again "lower the barriers" between people.

No one wants to relive the tragedy, but at least, psychologists say, on the anniversary of the worst attack ever on the United States, people can bring something positive out of what would be otherwise only a horror. The American Psychological Association partnered with Discovery Health Channel to produce a program called "Aftermath: Road to Resilience," which will air Sept. 11 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on the cable channel.

E-mail Jocelyn Dong at


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