Coping with Trauma — 28 November 2003
Managing our fears 9/11/01

Managing our fears 9/11/01

In his First Inaugural Address in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated;” The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. What was true then, has been true since then, and is particularly true now.

However, a distinction has to be made between basic fear and panic. Basic fear is the alert emotion warning us of impending risk to our existence. It is helpful and needed. Panic is a form of debilitating fear, which hinders taking necessary steps to assure survival.

Anyone who has experienced life -threatening danger is familiar with the physiological manifestations of this innate mechanism. The body experiences a heightened state of readiness; the heart pounds, respiration and perspiration increase, digestion is slowed, the pupils are dilated and specific hormones are excreted to prepare for the fight or flight reaction.
People often describe an instant of immobilization, inner silence, slowing of all perceptions before action occurs. It is as though the mind allows the body to gear up first, before resuming its own potency.

When fear turns into panic, the resumption of our reasoning capacity is delayed and we may be temporarily immobilized, frozen and impotent to act. This is the fear we must fear. Not the normal fear that leads to self- preservation measures.

Survival fear is one of many fears we have. The recent terrorism has given rise to other concerns. I have heard these fears expressed; “We fear the loss of our freedom, we fear the dangers of travel, we fear for our daily safety, we fear the new world our children will have to face, we fear for our children’s well being, we fear the certainty of future attacks and the uncertainty of their nature, we fear that the food we eat and the air we breath may not be safe, we fear opening the mail, and we fear the unknown- any new method of evil madness which may descend upon us.”

It has been said that we have lost our innocence. We did. The confidence about our freedom, safety and health, which we have taken for granted living in America, has been violated.

Yet, As a nation, we have used our fear as a unifying force.
President Bush is enjoying an 89% approval rate. Republicans and Democrats speak of fading differences when the nation is at war. Flags today have become a truly meaningful symbol of national pride and the national anthem evokes tears. People report heightened awareness of the value of life, religion and their families. We have not lost our resolve to be a decent, compassionate nation even in our war actions.

Individually Americans have risen to the challenge, using their fears to be more helpful, kind and giving. Statistics show that 63% of people are more courteous, 54% more religious (attend services), 71% have contributed to the relief efforts in New York and national pride is at its highest since World War II.

The bravery of the nation as a whole is heart warming. And yet, the increased use of sleeping aids, anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants speaks to the degree of our emotional distress.

So how can we manage our fears?

® First we recognize that all these fears and others which we may have are valid.
® We allow ourselves to feel the fears, speak of them openly with others and get support about the fact that they are normal and shared.
® We separate the fears about which we have some control (travel, our children’s welfare, and handling mail), from the ones that are beyond our power.
® We can use our fear, which increases our alertness, – to focus, be aware of our surrounding and feel safer through our increased vigilance.
® We can become better informed about the real dangers and their prevention or treatments. (Such as the nature, spread and treatments of Anthrax). Mystery evokes greater fears and a sense of helplessness. Knowledge guides us in keeping calmer and feeling more empowered.
® We need to gain more control over those areas in our daily lives that have been neglected. Fear is maximized when one’s life is less in order than desired.

® We must be realistic about the statistical chances of harm to any one individual. They are miniscule.
® We can also learn from other nations who have experienced violence and terrorism for many years. They are aware of the dangers, act cautiously, and believe that leading a normal life only defeats the “evil doers” and enhances the cause of freedom.

The heroes of September 11, as all other prior heroes, taught us that the way to handle fear is to plough through it and do what is right. In following their example we can gain a greater measure of stability and calmness.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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