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Terrorist Blast Teaches Lesson to Stress Expert

November 05, 1985|PATRICK MOTT

On the morning of Oct. 11, Daniel Thorne, a marriage and family counselor from Orange, had just walked into the office building at 1905 East 17th St. in Santa Ana for a 9 a.m. meeting. A consultant on stress management as well as family problems, Thorne was preparing to discuss individual case counseling with employees of Holman Consulting, an employee-assistance firm.

Short minutes later, a bomb thought to be planted by terrorists exploded on the floor below Thorne, ripping through the offices of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and killing Alex Odeh, head of the committee and one of California's leading Arab spokesmen. The force of the blast shattered windows throughout the floor, and glass and other debris was blown into the street and parking lot below.

For Thorne, 32, the tragedy was a swift and direct lesson in coping with what has become for many people throughout the world the most stress-laden situation they are likely to encounter in their lives: the ever-present threat of terrorism.

Helping patients deal with stress is a specialty with Thorne, but, he said, it is one thing to worry about losing one's job but quite another to worry about losing one's life. People's reactions, like his on the morning of Oct. 11, can be unexpected.

"When the bomb went off," he said, "it was almost like a traffic accident, like the building had hit something huge. My first thought was that it was an earthquake, but I'd lived in California long enough to know right away that it wasn't. We heard screaming in the halls and smoke came up to our floor. We saw shattered glass all over.

"I didn't panic. I wasn't anxious, I wasn't nervous. It was almost like being in school and this was a fire drill. We just calmly left the building and went to the parking lot. It wasn't until 15 minutes later that we heard people talking about a bomb."

Laughs a Little

"Right then, when I heard that, that's when things really started changing for me," he said. "I wondered why anyone would want to do this. My first reaction, and this might sound strange, was to laugh a little bit. When I'm depressed or angry, I try to do that. It holds me together, keeps me from crying. At the same time, though, there was fear. We were all thinking there might be more bombs."

Other occupants of the building whom he met in the parking lot appeared calm but "did a lot of talking," said Thorne. "That was the general reaction. There was some joking by some people to relieve the tension and some people didn't talk about it at all. They talked about business."

But, said Thorne, as the day went along and the realization of what had happened deepened, "I realized that if the bomb was planted by a terrorist he could have blown up the whole building and we all could have died."

Took the Day Off

At first, Thorne said, he tried to go back to work but then realized that his mind was swimming with the events of the morning. He took the day off, went home and played with his 3-year-old son.

Thorne said he has not counseled anyone in the building since the bomb blast but said if anyone who suffered through the disturbing effects of that morning continues to feel nervous or anxious the best self-therapy is "what I call unloading. Just airing their thoughts about it, talking to someone about their feelings. Talking about the experience is important. Depending on their degree of anxiety and their emotional state at the time, they may want to take time off from work, to get away from the pressure and decompress.

"They need to mentally put things in focus. They need to say, 'I'm OK, it was pretty serious, but I'm all right and the chances are it won't happen again so I'm going to just go on with my life."'

Thorne pointed out, however, that the psychological effects of a single incident, while upsetting, are not the same as anxiety that is felt more continuously.

As the memory of the bomb blast and Odeh's death--and the greater danger that might have been--lingered with Thorne, he said he began to think about and analyze what sort of extraordinary stresses are felt by those who face the threat of terrorism each day: foreign correspondents, embassy employees, U.S. oil company workers based in the Middle East--anyone, in fact, living or working in a volatile political or social climate.

Stress of Combat

Those stresses, he said, would be similar to those felt by combat soldiers or big-city police officers. The stress would be chronic rather than acute, continuous rather than a one-time scare. And the fuel for the stress would be uncertainty.

Then, "you would have to take care of (your mental health) on an ongoing basis," Thorne said. "You would have to know all the factors going in, take precautions, be on guard, know that it could happen and accept the situation."

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