Kali Munro, M.Ed., Psychotherapist
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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 these 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 groups reeling from Tuesdayís attacks, yet there has been little said about how this tragedy has aggravated the effects of past traumas and fears. If you are a trauma survivor or dealing 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, fear, 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 the confusion and shock that comes from being attacked for no reason. Weíve felt the worry and fear that escalates while waiting for the next attack. We know what it feels like to live in an unsafe world. These old feelings have been stirred up for many survivors because 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 severely, massively, and repeatedly attacked. Of course this would trigger old fears and a feeling of 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 light on (presumably the military), there is increased security everywhere, and buildings are collapsing. On almost every television and radio channel and throughout the net, there are constant updates and graphic information about the attacks. All are constant reminders of Tuesdayís horrific attacks, and they repeatedly trigger the lack of safety, both current and 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 every night she shoves a heavy chest of drawers up against the door because she is afraid that 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 understandable 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 now.

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 responses; or if old feelings and memories in the form of intrusive images, nightmares, panic attacks, or flashbacks are stirred up.

Itís important not to give yourself a hard time about how you are feeling or coping; that will only make things worse for you. Your reactions donít mean 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 attack, 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 spousal abuse and child abuse. Hopefully reading this will validate why you may be feeling so emotional.

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 abuse);

  • 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 alcoholics);

  • 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 been hard to deal with. Itís important to find ways to ground yourself in the present, and to be 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 respond;

  • create a safe place inside your home by placing comforting and reassuring things in one 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 self-talk;

  • 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 wind 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 necessary;

  • 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 TV;

  • maintain your normal activities as much as possible; and

  • breathe.

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 also the 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
email@KaliMunro.com         www.KaliMunro.com

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