On Sunday we commemorate the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, an event of unthinkable proportion in terms of the destruction of civilian lives and life as we knew it. Globally, millions will bear witness to this terrorist assault from the retrospective of ten years. Many will resonate with the commonalities of loss, fear, courage and even growth that have unfolded. At the same time, the personal meaning of the 10th Anniversary and the reactions it evokes will be unique to the men, women and children whose lives have never stopped being touched by that day.
How do we cope with the 10th anniversary of a traumatic event of such proportion? How do we withstand the physical and emotional pain of re-triggered shock, loss, traumatic memory? Now, ten years later, how do we bear witness and re-visit in a way that gives more than it takes?
Ten Coping Strategies
Make Meaning of Anniversary Reactions – The nature of anniversary events is that they often trigger the same reactions of body and mind tied to the original trauma but experienced in the present i.e. hyperarousal (anxiety, sleep problems, startle response, concentration problems); intrusive imaging (memories, flashbacks and dreams); numbing, avoidance and constriction. Such anniversary reactions in addition to feelings of fear, anger, guilt, and grief are common in the weeks before and after an anniversary event.
While they may be frightening and unexpected, they make sense physically and psychologically. Unlike daily events, traumatic events are registered differently. The anniversary event is a opportunity, albeit disruptive, to integrate what your body and mind still remembers.
Turn up the Volume on Self-Care- Given the déjà vu of mind and body, pay special attention to physical and psychological safety. This is the race you hadn’t planned on running – be good to yourself with sleeping, eating, take an exercise class or more walks, buy a great book, listen to music, remind yourself to use your stress reducing activities.
Draw Upon Familiar Networks of Support – We recognize that the most effective antidote to the impact of trauma is use of familiar networks of support. People benefit from being with family, community, work teams, church even on-line groups as networks of containment and soothing in face of trauma. In face of the 10th Anniversary as traumatic feelings are triggered, such networks are crucial. They can provide soothing, validation and collective support in the face of collective loss.
Remember and Mourn in Your Own Way – It’s important to feel entitled to remember and memorialize your loved ones in your own way. For some, public or spiritual memorials are valued as an opportunity to bear witness as well as to publicly acknowledge the special qualities and importance of the loved one. For others there is a need to tailor the event in a way that bears witness privately. Everyone grieves in their way and on their time. Use the event as an opportunity to remind yourself and others, if you choose, of the treasured memories you will always carry of the people, places or way of life that you loved.
Connect and Guide Children – Children need support in coping with Anniversary Events. They need parents or loving adults to make sense of the event at different stages in their development.
They need to view the media with someone close who can translate and moderate the impact of the viewing. Events that offer them an option suited to their age- be it writing letters to loved ones, going through picture albums, sending off balloons tied with messages or attending a family memorial event can be invaluable to them.
Teens particularly need the option of coming together with family and friends, as well as the option to mourn and remember on their own terms. Many 9/11 kids who are now college students choose to stay at school and remember in their own way.
Regulate Your Use of the Media – The 10th Anniversary of 9/11 has drawn considerable media coverage. While it appears that the media has worked to respectfully remember and mark history, everyone’s sensitivity to the images of 9/11 will differ. The continual stream of media on TV, computers, cell phones etc. leaves no choice to forget or view on your own terms. Moderate your use of the media so that it serves to help integrate this emotionally important event rather than re-traumatize you or other family members.
Maintain a Flexible Perspective – Give yourself the benefit of focus on the Anniversary Event as well as permission to turn away to other aspects of life. While research shows benefits to reducing post-traumatic response by “Trauma Focus,” there have also been benefits attributed to “Forward Focus” that is, turning away, going back to work, distracting self with other activities. Recent research by Bonanno & Colleagues (2011) implies that the flexibility of moving between the two positions may be the most effective of all.
Recognize your Entitlement to Care – The events of 9/11 and their aftermath left a physical and emotional toll on many. In fact, now ten years later many still suffer from PTSD or now suffer from depression which may unfold from loss of loved ones, injury, loss of livelihood, loneliness or chronic pain. If you are suffering, reach for medical and professional guidance to support your recovery.
Recognize Resiliency – As you feel thrown back in mind or body to events associated with pain and loss, take stock and use your personal resiliency — intelligence, spirituality, creativity, sense of humor, marriage partners, hobbies and social networks — to support coping.
Consider the Potential of Anniversary Events – We have only to look back in history to cultures where atrocities have gone unspoken to know that our commemoration of the 10th Anniversary Event of 9/11 offers the freedom to bear witness, to memorialize, and to collectively mourn massive trauma in a way that connects us, gives voice and offers potential to heal and to hope.
Bessel van der Kolk (1994) The Body Keeps the Score:
Memory & the Evolving Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress
Bonanno, G. Pat-Horenczyk, R., Noll, J. (2011) “Coping Flexibility and Trauma: The Perceived Ability to Cope with Trauma (PACT) Scale. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, Vol 3, No.2, 117-129.
Gurwitch, R. (2011) 9/11 Anniversary May Create Worries in Some Kids