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America Awakes to Terror

Attacks in New York and Washington will bring nation to a psychological crossroads, experts say

TUESDAY, Sept. 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Trauma experts say today's unprecedented terrorist attacks, which could potentially claim thousands of lives, will undoubtedly leave deep psychological scars on all Americans.

"This is a watershed event. History changes, and the way we think about the United States and its place in the world changes," says Dr. Tara O'Toole, a terrorism expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In the decades after World War II, Americans developed a sense of near-invulnerability, an illusion that had become increasingly tenuous in recent years, O'Toole says.

All that was completely annihilated today -- creating a rift with both physical and psychic dimensions, she adds.

America's response to the attacks will have a significant impact on the path of its psychological healing, O'Toole says.

"Some sense that justice has been served is very important to get a sense of closure," she says.

Stunned horror was the almost-universal reaction to this morning's wave of plane attacks that toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and left the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., in flames.

While the architectural toll of the aerial assaults was immediately evident, most notably in the changed Manhattan skyline where the World Trade Center stood just hours ago, officials have had a harder time calculating the loss of life.

"It's your worst nightmare," Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says. But he adds, "We'll overcome this."

As Americans tune into television and flock to the Internet to learn more about the attacks, they will encounter images that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, says Kathleen Heide, a criminologist and trauma specialist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"Watching the crumbling of the World Trade Center, you have the experience that this is like a movie. But it's real. It brings an image that's not erasable," she says.

Parents will have to be particularly sensitive when trying to explain the day's events to their young children, O'Toole says. "They're going to see these horrible pictures on television."

Adults, she adds, should tell children what has happened "in very simple terms. They should try to be serious but not terribly graphic, and reassure them to the extent that that's possible."

In New Haven, Conn., the information that schoolchildren got depended on their ages.

At the Worthington Hooker Elementary School, which runs from kindergarten through grade 4, teachers said nothing, leaving the task up to the parents. High school students, however, were glued to TV sets all day. Psychologists will be on hand tomorrow in case students experience nightmares based on the images they may have seen on television today, officials say.

What To Do

Although terrorism by its very nature is unpredictable, there are things you can do to help yourself cope with the fear that such attacks generate, experts say.

Martha Starr, a certified trauma counselor in Birmingham, Ala., says one of the best ways to deal with the anxiety is to talk about it with family members or friends, or write down your feelings. "Talking about it is very important, whether it's writing to your congressman, or having family and neighborhood discussions," Starr says.

The body's normal response to fear can cover a wide range of emotional and even physical symptoms, including chills, chest pains, nausea, vomiting, headaches and high blood pressure.

The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation has more on the reaction to crisis.

For more on post-trauma stress, visit the National Center for PTSD or the Sidran Foundation.

For more on the government's response to terrorism, try the U.S. Department of Justice.

SOURCES: Interviews with Tara O'Toole, M.D., Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Kathleen M Heide, Ph.D. professor of criminology, University of South Florida, Tampa; Martha Starr, trauma counselor, Birmingham, Ala.
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