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Emotional recovery after 9/11 marks resilient nature

Much of the nation appears to have bounced back from the trauma of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, psychologists say. It's a largely positive sign that points to people's desire for normality.

September 05, 2011|By Chris Woolston, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Many of the New Yorkers who lived through the Sept. 11 attacks have largely bounced back from the traumatic aftereffects, researchers say.
Many of the New Yorkers who lived through the Sept. 11 attacks have largely… (Doug Kanter / AFP/Getty…)

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, America woke up, got some coffee, and started its day as if nothing was wrong, as if the world was basically safe and predictable. The big story on NBC's "Today" show was Michael Jordan's upcoming return to the NBA. It was the very definition of a slow news day — until that first jet plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Ten years later, we live in a different reality. The country is fighting two wars, the Middle East is in upheaval, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are dead and MJ is in upper management. But we still get up every day and do what we need to do.

The world has changed — except in the countless ways in which it hasn't changed at all.

We all honor the memory of the nearly 3,000 victims who lost their lives in New York City, the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania. And we're all just a YouTube clip away from reliving the horror. But on a personal level, most of us have moved on.

Psychologists have found that the emotions that surrounded New York City and the rest of the nation 10 years ago — the fear, the anger — have largely faded into the background, often with remarkable speed. "A lot of people were surprised at how quickly the trauma disappeared," says George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University in New York City.

With some exceptions, even people who lost the most on Sept. 11 have found solace over the years. Beatrice Beebe, a clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia, says she has seen "remarkable resilience and growth" in widows who were pregnant at the time of the attacks.

The attacks underscored the enduring strength of both the national psyche and the human mind. We're a resilient country, the experts say, but we're also stubborn. No matter the scale of tragedy or good fortune, we tend to bounce back (or sink down) to our usual state of mind.

We have many of the same strengths, anxieties, hopes and bad habits that we had before the attacks — we just happen to have them in a post-Sept. 11 world. And even as we mark this grim anniversary, we should embrace our return to normality. "The fact that we're so resilient is absolutely a positive thing," Bonanno says.

The entire country recoiled at the events of that day. People living in New York City faced an especially potent mix of danger and uncertainty — a perfect recipe for fear. Many New Yorkers managed to focus that anxiety in a positive direction. "There was a lot of civility," Bonanno says. "There was a shared sense of cooperation. And there was a great affection for the policemen and firemen."

Pulling together is a classic coping mechanism; we saw the same response in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., and we're seeing it again in areas flooded by Hurricane Irene. But Bonanno believes his city turned rallying into an art form. "People think of New Yorkers as rude, but this is a real problem-solving city," he says.

Of course, the civility and goodwill that swept through New York and the rest of the country was mixed with considerable distress. A telephone survey of more than 1,000 New Yorkers conducted within a month of the attacks found that about 8% had developed the telltale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition marked by flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and hyper-anxiety. Six months later, the same researchers found signs of Sept. 11-related PTSD in less than 1% of respondents.

Though PTSD is a difficult condition to diagnose over the phone, the trend was clear. After the dust settled, many people felt better — fast. "A few people are going to have lingering pain for a long time," Bonanno says, "but the majority were fine right away."

It's important to note, though, that some who seemingly recovered quickly may still be carrying hidden baggage, says Barbara Ganzel, director of the Lifespan Affective Neuroscience Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Ganzel and colleagues looked at the brains of 17 mentally healthy people who lived near the World Trade Center at the time of the attack and compared them with 19 other adults who moved to New York after Sept. 11.

Though the subjects who had lived through the attack didn't suffer from obvious depression or PTSD, the scans suggested that they had lost gray matter in many parts of the brain, including the amygdala, a region that detects threats and generates fear. Importantly, MRI studies showed that these shrunken amygdalae tended to overreact when the survivors looked at pictures of fearful faces. The study was published in a 2008 issue of the journal Neuroimage.

The survivors seemed fine on the outside, but their brains were still on edge, an imprint of the attack that, according to Ganzel, could linger for decades.

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