Coping with the Attacks of Sept. 11:
- For Sexual Abuse and other Trauma Survivors
by Kali Munro, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, Sept., 2001.
Have you been feeling unsafe, panicky, or afraid to go outside since the attacks?
Are you crying a lot, cutting more, or has your eating disorder been aggravated? If
or other old ways of coping and feeling have been heightened, you are not alone.
Effects of Past Traumas and Fears Aggravated
The Sept 11th attacks in the United States have triggered profound reactions for us
all. Sexual abuse survivors and people with mental health problems are one of the many
reeling from Tuesdayís attacks, yet there has been little said about how this tragedy
aggravated the effects of past traumas and fears. If you are a trauma survivor or
with mental health problems, this article is for you.
Survivors Know Trauma and Horror
We were all horrified by the recent attacks in the United States. Itís been scary and
overwhelming for people around the world. Trauma survivors and people with mental
health problems have found themselves reacting strongly to the attacks, as old pain,
and insecurities have been stirred up.
There are many parallels between the recent attacks and child trauma. As trauma
survivors, we know what it's like to be attacked and to fear for our lives. We know
confusion and shock that comes from being attacked for no reason. Weíve felt the
and fear that escalates while waiting for the next attack. We know what it feels like
in an unsafe world. These old feelings have been stirred up for many survivors
they resonate so deeply with the present crisis.
Many Survivors are Feeling Unsafe
Many survivors struggle on a daily basis to feel safe. Others have had to work hard
at knowing that they are safe, and that they no longer have to live in fear of another
attack. And then suddenly and unexpectedly, cities in the United States were
massively, and repeatedly attacked. Of course this would trigger old fears and a
being battered and unsafe.
Many survivors now feel panicky and afraid to go outside. In some US cities, there
is an armed presence on street corners, non-commercial planes fly overhead with only one
on (presumably the military), there is increased security everywhere, and buildings
collapsing. On almost every television and radio channel and throughout the net,
constant updates and graphic information about the attacks. All are constant
Tuesdayís horrific attacks, and they repeatedly trigger the lack of safety, both
triggered from abusive childhoods.
Hearing that tens of thousands of people were potentially killed in brutal attacks in the United
States and that thousands were killed, many of whom were buried alive, is utterly terrifying. It resonates
deeply with old, familiar terror and pain. One survivor told me that since the attacks
night she shoves a heavy chest of drawers up against the door because she is afraid
they are coming to get her.
For many survivors, these attacks have seemed to offer proof that their worst
fears were right - "that there is no safety in the world". While itís totally
that you feel this way - itís a normal response to trauma - itís important to know that
these feelings will pass and that safety does exist even if you arenít feeling safe right
Old Ways of Coping May Be Triggered
Given how upsetting and triggering itís been, itís understandable if old responses
are triggered, such as cutting, over-eating or starving yourself, and other stress
or if old feelings and memories in the form of intrusive images, nightmares, panic
or flashbacks are stirred up.
Itís important not to give yourself a hard time about how
are feeling or coping; that will only make things worse for you. Your reactions donít
that youíre going backwards; they are indications that you are feeling stressed which is a natural response to trauma, both present and past. You are coping the best you can in a traumatic situation.
Parallels Between Attacks and Child Sexual Abuse
For abuse survivors, there are many parallels between the recent attacks and the
child abuse they experienced, and this, of course, triggers many of the deep painful
feelings experienced during abuse (such as fear for your life, waiting for the next
terror, pain, numbness, shock, etc.). The following is a list of some of the similarities
between the attacks in the United States, and other kinds of violence, such as
abuse and child abuse. Hopefully reading this will validate why you may be feeling so
The attacks in the United States and child abuse both involve:
- being attacked; (many people have experienced some form of an attack);
- being taken hostage and held captive (occurs in spousal and child abuse);
- being afraid for oneís and/or othersí lives;
- facing one's death (even though trauma survivors have not died, many come very close to death particularly ritual abuse survivors, and child physical and spousal abuse survivors);
- being buried alive (occurs in ritual abuse);
- experiencing an extreme disregard for human life and dignity;
- witnessing a loss of lives (occurs in ritual abuse, child physical and spousal
- experiencing racism and/or anti-semitism (occurs in ritual abuse, street violence, and bullying, and is experienced by many communities);
- hearing screaming (a major trigger for many abuse survivors);
- experiencing unpredictability - not knowing when the next attack will occur (a key
issue for children of alcoholics and people from unstable and abusive homes);
- experiencing an absence of safety and protection (also relevant for children of
- having come to terms with, or coming to terms with the lack of safety in intimate relationships to now experiencing a fear that the larger world is not safe as well;
- experiencing a loss of control, powerlessness and helplessness;
- experiencing threats, panic, terror, and horror;
- feeling an inability to comprehend why this has happened; and
- having the belief that 'this canít happen in our country or family' shattered.
With all the similarities between Tuesdayís attacks and your own abuse, and the
trauma that you already carry inside of you, itís no wonder that these attacks have
hard to deal with. Itís important to find ways to ground yourself in the present, and
comforting and nurturing toward yourself.
The following are suggestions for how to cope with this and other traumas:
- remind yourself that what you are feeling and thinking and how you are coping are
normal responses to trauma and to your own history - there is no right way to feel or
- create a safe place inside your home by placing comforting and reassuring things in
area, and spend some quiet time there;
- spend time with people that you feel safe with;
- acknowledge how you feel, and soothe your fear with calming activities and
- talk about how you feel with others, both online and in person;
- write in a journal, draw, paint, sing, dance, sculpt. Express your feelings;
- join groups online, or in your area, to receive support and to feel less alone;
- create or participate in grieving rituals if you need to;
- be physically active, take walks, spend time in nature, listen to the birds, feel the
on your face, breathe;
- eat well, drink lots of water, and avoid sugar, alcohol, and caffeine;
- talk about other things. Itís okay to take a breather from this tragedy. In fact, itís
- find ways to ground yourself, and contain intrusive thoughts and images;
- limit the time spent watching TV or listening to the radio - donít get glued to the
- maintain your normal activities as much as possible; and
Many trauma survivors and people with mental health problems will need additional support, possibly professional support, at this time to process not only present day reactions to this tragedy, but
pain and vulnerabilities it taps into from violent or dysfunctional childhoods and adult
traumas. Know that you are not alone in how you are feeling and responding to this
situation. You deserve to feel what you feel, and to take special care of yourself.
And remember, there is still safety and love in the world. Let yourself see that in the many
examples there are in the world right now, and breathe.
Kali Munro, © 2001.
All rights reserved.
Edited by C. Rainfield.
If you would like to post this article on your website, or print, copy, and distribute it, you may, providing you print it in its entirety (including credits), link to me (or in the case of printed copies, include my website address, email address, and phone number), and do not profit from it.
Kali Munro, M.Ed., Psychotherapist 416 929-4612
Let me know what you think. :)
Toronto Therapy Approach
© Pat's Web Graphics
All Graphics Copyright