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Post-Sept. 11: Counselors talk about coping

Oct. 11 marked four weeks since terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into landmark buildings in New York and Washington, D.C. -- and the Pennsylvania countryside -- killing thousands. The one-month anniversary of the events that changed the world is, according to most mental health professionals, only the first of what will be many traumatic "anniversaries" of the tragic events of Sept. 11.

This week's airstrikes on Afghanistan will only add to the collective psyche of being "at war" and will undoubtedly bring up a whole new range of emotions, but local counselors have been seeing the psychological fallout from what's come to be known simply as 9/11 ever since that day -- and it's not likely to fade any time soon.

"It comes up every day," says psychologist Lynnea Lindsey of Gorge Counseling and Treatment Services. "It's affecting all ages, across the board." Along with sadness and fear, Lindsey says many people remain in a state of "hyper-vigilance" as a result of the unprecedented attacks.

"People are constantly scanning the environment for clues -- looking to see if it's going to happen again," she says. "People have a stronger startle response." Lindsey noticed it herself the other day when she was suddenly distracted by two helicopters flying up the Gorge -- something she previously wouldn't even have noticed.

Lindsey says that the terrorist attacks have affected the psyche of Americans in a different way than other tragedies -- even those that have killed Americans -- because of the vast uncertainties they've left in their wake.

"There's the grief of the trauma, and then there's the sustained stress of what comes next, when is next, who is next," Lindsey says. "Single events -- earthquakes, floods, accidents -- can be processed. What's more difficult about this is the sense of sustained trauma, that we don't get to put it to rest."

Gary Young, chaplain at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, concurs.

"This was a change event, a life event," he says. "This is something that people will carry with them." He says it's also different in that it's "massive."

"It's hard for us to comprehend. We're always going to have trouble comprehending," he says. The number of deaths in the Twin Towers collapse alone, he adds, is like the population of Hood River being wiped out.

Lindsey and Young both stress that people should confront their feelings about the attacks -- and that it's normal to have strong emotions about the events and to continue to have them.

"Our own feelings and experiences of this are very legitimate," Lindsey says -- even if we didn't have an immediate connection with victims of the attacks.

"Even if it wasn't personal, it was personal," she says. "It's not six degrees of separation, it's more like two or three." Along with the enormous loss of life the attacks also, in the span of a couple of hours, altered how we look at our world.

"It shattered our view that we live in a safe, secure environment," she says.

According to Lindsey and Young, not everyone will process the events at the same pace -- and that's okay.

"It becomes a problem only when it disrupts someone's work, relationships, social life," Lindsey says. "When it disrupts the ability to function on a day-to-day basis." For people really struggling with their grief from 9/11, she recommends talking to clergy, a grief support group or a mental health professional.

"Use whatever resources are out there," she says.

According to Lindsey, an event of this magnitude also can "shake loose other stuff" -- such as memories of old traumas or unresolved personal issues.

"It's also a time of rethinking certain things," she says. "People are saying, `Do I really want to be married to this person?' or `Do I really want this job?'" She says these are normal reactions to an event that has "shifted the paradigm."

"It's a benchmark of being changed," she says. "We are reframing things -- looking at how we fit into this picture."

Young recommends approaching the events of 9/11 in the same way as the death of a family member or close friend -- by going through the necessary grieving process.

"We need to admit that we are grieving," he says. "Spend some time with it." Young outlines the five basic steps in the grieving process: recognizing our feelings; acceptance; finding meaning and coming to grips with a new reality; redefining our values; letting go and moving on.

"As a people, we are not used to grieving," he says. "Maybe for the first time in our country's life, we have national grieving going on."

Lindsey says it normally takes a full year for the first grief cycle to take place. "Every mark -- one month, Christmas, six months -- will have an effect," she says. At Christmas, for example, some people might react emotionally to the thought of all the children of victims who no longer have their mother or father.

"It's like these little slide shows go through our head," she says. "As a country, this whole next year is going to be a challenge."

Young agrees, adding that "grief is something that just washes over us.

"We just have to go through it," he says. "We just have to go through it."

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