Anniversary likely to stir up emotions

Local psychologists say anxiety, grief among things to watch for

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

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Even here in Clark County, 3,000 miles from Ground Zero, the attacks of 9/11 had a powerful impact. The constant media coverage and shocking images burned in people’s minds.

“I think almost everyone of a certain age feels they experienced that event,” said Vancouver psychologist Kirk Johnson, owner of Vancouver Guidance Clinic. “You can certainly experience the trauma of an event without actually being there.”

Reading about the attacks in newspapers and magazines and watching coverage on television created a nation of “virtual witnesses” to 9/11, Johnson said.

With today being the 10-year anniversary of the attacks, some of those same feelings of grief and anxiety experienced on 9/11 might resurface, and people should be prepared to deal with those emotions, he said. Parents also need to be ready to field questions about 9/11 from their children.

Those most directly impacted by 9/11 — people who were there during the attacks or who lost loved ones — are most likely to struggle with the 9/11 decennial, Johnson said.

“When an individual experiences something that reminds them of or that takes them back to the original trauma, those trauma symptoms can return,” he said.

Those symptoms can include feelings of heightened anxiety, fearfulness and powerlessness. It’s important to be aware of your reactions and to talk about these emotions with friends and family, Johnson said.

For those especially sensitized to 9/11, it may be a good idea to limit exposure to television programs replaying footage of the terrorist attacks, said Jack Litman, a Vancouver psychologist in private practice.

“TV broadcasts affect so many senses and become embedded in the memory,” he said.

However, Johnson cautions that if people find themselves withdrawing or using avoidance to cope with their feelings of anxiety, then they might need to seek help from a mental health professional.

Litman suggests that people use the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 to do something constructive and positive, such as repair a fractured relationship or volunteer in the community.

“Life goes on,” he said. “We need to go on.”

Younger children weren’t alive during the 9/11 attacks, and older kids were probably too young at the time to really process what was happening, Litman said. So this probably isn’t as salient a topic for them as it is for adults who may have felt vicariously traumatized.

Litman recommends that parents avoid exposing children younger than 10 to coverage of 9/11.

“They’re too young to process it, so either it will seem unreal or it will be scary in a way they can’t understand,” he said.

If kids bring up the topic themselves, parents should answer the question directly and succinctly, and reassure them that they don’t need to be afraid.

“You answer the question and no more, and at the same time you tell them they’re safe and secure, and you behave accordingly. You demonstrate that with your own good parental behavior modeling,” Litman said. “Children get anxious because their parents are anxious, so create a calm, safe, supportive environment.”

Once children are older, parents can have real discussions with them about 9/11, Litman said. The decennial is a good opportunity to stress the importance of tolerance, he added.

“Use it as an opportunity to reinforce how similar we all are,” he said. “Let them know that there are unfortunately bad people in the world, but that most of the world is made up of people like us who have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, and who care about each other and care about the well-being of others. (Teach children that) we care about people regardless of who they are and what they look like.”

For older kids, 9/11 is a topic they’re likely to encounter at school as well as at home. Washougal High School, for example, had a special assembly planned for Friday. Social studies classes throughout last week included discussions of 9/11.

The 10-year anniversary of 9/11 is a good chance to encourage open-mindedness, discourage discrimination and celebrate the strength of the human spirit, said Carol Boyden, assistant principal at Washougal High School. It’s an opportunity to think critically about the attacks and to examine them from different perspectives, she added.

It’s a time for “learning from the past and learning just what hatred can do to humankind,” Boyden said. “Just because people are different doesn’t make one group right and one group wrong.”