Staff Perspective: Coping in our Post-9/11 World - Part 1, Personal Life

Staff Perspective: Coping in our Post-9/11 World - Part 1, Personal Life

As the 15th anniversary of 9/11 drew near, I found myself thinking a lot about how the world has changed in those years and how those changes have impacted my personal life and my work.  Last month, I drove through New York City to visit my hometown.  Seeing the skyline always elicits in me a strange combination of grief for lives lost and pride in New Yorkers’ resilience.    But on this drive I found myself thinking “What’s next?” and “Maybe it’s not safe to be in NYC.”  Perhaps this was because the anniversary of 9/11 was right around the corner, but I also think it had a lot to do with the seeming increase in local and global violence.

I lived in NYC until 2000 and the Twin Towers dominated the view from my window for four years.  On 9/11, many of my friends and family members were living or working in lower Manhattan.  Like many Americans, I remember the slow and agonizing process of getting in touch with each of them.  And like many Americans, I took the events of that day personally.

After spending a few days glued to the news networks, it was time to find a way to cope with this new realization that American soil was vulnerable.  For a long time I wholeheartedly bought into the “Don’t let the terrorists win!” perspective.  You know what I’m referring to – “If we stop going to ballgames/malls/concerts, the terrorists will win.”  NYC enacted this philosophy with that tall, shiny, defiant Freedom Tower.  Both as I watched it being built and as I drove into NYC last month I could hear prototypical New Yawkas screaming “You knocked our buildings down?  We’ll build an even bigger one!”

It’s been harder to maintain an air of invincibility in recent months.  Violence and terrorism are nothing new, of course.  I remember the beating of Rodney King and the LA riots of 1992, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.  But especially in the past few years it feels like we live in a climate of violence, punctuated by brief bouts of peace and quiet.  Domestic terrorism, war, racially-charged violence, ambushed police officers….there appears to be nonstop danger, or at least nonstop coverage of it.

It’s become evident in the past few weeks that I’m not the only one struggling to cope with the uptick in terrorism and random violence. My CDP coworkers, who travel on a regular basis, have started to share anxiety about teaching in high-profile locations.  As a whole, my colleagues have been talking more about keeping their kids safe at school, avoiding heavily populated locations, and limiting overseas travel.  Theoretically, we are the people best equipped to cope with stress.  So how are we coping?

I recently posed this question to several colleagues and their answers were enlightening.  I’ll cover what I learned about our personal coping here.  Part 2 of this blog will focus on how our work with patients has been affected.

I started each discussion with the question “How are you coping with the threat of violence and terrorism?”  Universally, every colleague initially responded with some version of “I don’t know” or “Not well.”  This was not reassuring, but it made sense.  There is no shortage of recommendations for self-care: Keep doing things that you enjoy.  Limit your exposure to media coverage.  Talk to a trusted friend or pursue your own counseling.  Those all sound great on the surface, but how do we reconcile them with the current state of the world?  Movie theaters, clubs, and places of worship are all locations where we seek enjoyment and peace, but all have been settings for mass shootings.  We can limit exposure to newspapers and TV news programs, but the integration of social media into daily life makes it nearly impossible to completely avoid media coverage of tragedies.  And how do you find a friend or clinical professional who hasn’t been similarly affected?

Fortunately, each discussion quickly revealed that we were all practicing those same healthy coping techniques that we recommend to our patients, whether we realize it or not.  Our approaches tended to fall into the following categories:

Focus on the positive:  Did you hear about the 911 operator in Hartford who spent her day off helping an 86-year-old caller who needed help getting her trash curbside?  What about the 91-year-old cancer patient who spends his time in hospice knitting hats for homeless individuals in Michigan?  Or the moment when Black Lives Matter protestors and All Lives Matter counter-protesters in Dallas ended a tense standoff by hugging it out and praying together in the middle of the street?  These types of things happen every day, but we rarely hear about it.  Exploring bias in the news is a topic for a different writer, but suffice it to say that positive news stories are much harder to come by.  One interesting trend that my colleagues discussed is that they have – consciously or unconsciously – been searching out and sharing more of these stories.   Rather than reposting an inflammatory article about Trump or Clinton, we’re choosing to instead populate our Facebook feeds with pictures of kittens sleeping in a furry pile and videos of Olympic athletes dominating at their sports. 

Acceptance and value-driven living: Every colleague offered some version of this as a coping strategy.  Each talked about first accepting that “This is the world we live in” and that “We’re never really 100% safe.”  One colleague reflected, “I’ve just accepted that one way I could die is as a victim of violence.”  But his next thought is even more important – “How do I want to live the life that I have?”  We’ve all made the decision to focus on what is within our control and prioritize our values.  This is not always an easy balance, of course.  One colleague described her struggle to balance the possibility of terrorism overseas while still pursuing her wish to travel with her child and expose him to other cultures.  She repeatedly reminds herself that ruminating on her fear limits her life instead of empowering her.

Living in the present:  A part of the acceptance mentioned above is appreciating the here and now.  Rather than getting caught up in grief for the past or anxiety about the future, we are all living in the moment as much as possible.  Each time that this point was raised, I envisioned one of those flowers that breaks through a crack in a sidewalk.  Rather than be oppressed by violence, we are determined to find a bit of optimism and hope in everyday life.

Practicing random acts of kindness:  Several colleagues described taking any available opportunity to improve another person’s life.  We spoke of different ways to initiate a positive interaction with others -- return someone else’s grocery cart to the pen, let someone merge into your lane even when they don’t have the right-of-way, hold the door and smile.  Although these are little things, they are examples of supporting each other during stressful times.  One colleague put it eloquently: “I can’t stop all the terrorists or take out all the gunmen, but I can make someone else’s day a little better. And hopefully they pay it forward.”  

Ultimately, the most reassuring finding from my very unscientific inquiry is that we are largely practicing what we preach. Some of us felt a little “hokey” in our answers, but acknowledged that these coping methods worked.  So why did we all initially doubt our coping skills?  How were we defining “coping”?  And how prepared do we feel to help patients with the same fears?  Check back for Part 2 of this blog for the answers.

Carin M. Lefkowitz, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Lefkowitz earned her M.A. and Psy.D. in clinical psychology at Widener University, with a concentration in cognitive-behavioral therapy.