There are victims still among us: The emotional toll of 9/11 five years later

By Scott Buhrmaster
Police1 Managing Editor

The events of five years ago had a life-changing impact on all of us. As we stood helpless watching police officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and civilians risking and losing their lives, the sights and sounds of the 9/11 attacks were searing an indelible mark into our cumulative psyche.

While it is clearly important—in fact our duty—to remember those attacks and honor the victims who died as well as to thank those who risked their lives helping others that day and survived, it is also important to make sure that those attacks don’t continue to victimize us through a stress-induced inability to meet our personal and professional responsibilities and live healthily.

This fifth anniversary of the attacks is a day of tribute, remembrance and resolve, but it can also be a post-traumatic trigger that has some officers struggling to stabilize emotionally.

“The initial impact of a traumatic event is expected…the shock, the horror, the disbelief, the pain,” said police trauma expert Dr. Bill Lewinski, Executive Director of The Force Science Research Center. “What is rarely expected is the duration that suffering can have, particularly if critical steps aren’t taken in the early stages to come to grips with the event and move through it.

“There are two kinds of reminders that can spark painful, sometimes debilitating memories of a traumatic event,” he told “There are situational reminders, which involve encountering images and sounds associated with the event, and there are anniversary reminders, which involves the resurrection of painful memories sparked by the date of the event.

“Are you supposed to expect that one morning you’re going to wake up and watch people fly planes into buildings and kill thousands of innocent people and come away unscathed?"

“Today, and for the last several days leading up to this anniversary, we are experiencing both,” he continued. “We are watching the attacks repeatedly replayed on the TV, we’re listening to people recall the horrors of that day, and we are now standing on the exact anniversary date of the attack. For many this can be nearly unbearable. They may not talk about it, but it's true.”

Lewinski reminds us that although the majority of police officers who witnessed the attacks were not at Ground Zero, their level of stress and anxiety was extremely high, and understandably may continue to be. The intensity of the event had a major impact on their lives as well.

“On that day, officers across the country envisioned what it would be like to be dealing with a catastrophic event like this,” says Lewinski. “In fact, many were actually planning on it, particularly those in urban areas.

“Their anxiety level was extremely high and for many, still is. There tends to be an overriding feeling that some kind of attack is imminent, but you don’t know what kind or when it will hit. One thing you do know: as a cop, you’re going to be called upon to respond to it. This can be emotionally taxing to say the least.”

It is also important to remember that there may be officers whose exposure to the images of the attacks shown in recent media coverage may spark flashback-type responses because they remind them of traumatic, non-9/11 events they’ve been involved with…people jumping out of buildings, fires raging, bleeding people running from a scene, etc. Those images may be a trigger for them.

With this in mind, here are some tips from Dr. Bill Lewinski on how you can help yourself if you find the attacks continue to have an overbearing negative impact on your life and how you can also help others who may be struggling to come to grips with the events of five years ago.

How you can help yourself

1. Seek counseling, in some form, if you haven’t. It does work.

“If you don’t feel comfortable going to a professional counselor, seek out a peer counseling group (ideally one guided by a trained professional) or someone in whom you trust.

“Remember that while it can be very therapeutic to share your thoughts and feelings with someone who was there or someone who is experiencing the same kinds of emotional difficulties you are--someone who feels ‘truly understands’—you should also keep in mind that someone not so deeply engaged may have the ability to bring a more clear, outside view to some of your thoughts, concerns and behaviors and may help you put them in perspective.

“You should also remember that a trained professional will have skills and techniques he or she can bring to bear that can be very helpful to you.”

2. Watch what you do to “deal with the pain”

“Take a very close look at what you do to dull the pain you’re experiencing and candidly evaluate whether it is going to cause you more suffering in the long run,” says Lewinski. “People who are suffering the after effects of a traumatic event often exhibit self-destructive behavior.

“If you go home and drink yourself through the night, if you find yourself taking unnecessary risks just for the fleeting adrenalin high, if you are starting to wonder whether dealing with the pain is even worth it, you need to take those behaviors as the serious warning signs they are and get yourself help.

“In situations like that, the aftermath of trauma can be, and often is, just a deadly as the original crisis.”

3. Remember that "Survivor’s Guilt" is normal.

“For many, the pain of surviving a traumatic event or watching others suffer through one while you’re safe at home, can be psychologically devastating,” says Lewinski. “It’s a phenomenon called ‘Survivor’s Guilt’…the persistent, self-destructive questioning of why others died and you did not. For many, the fact that they are alive makes them wish they were dead.”

Lewinski suggests two things in regards to this:

First, understand and believe that this is a common response and that you are not alone.

Second, find a way, ideally through the assistance of a professional, to believe that you are not a failure, you are not “less worthy” than those who were lost and you are not being disrespectful if you move on with your life.

“You have personal and professional responsibilities to meet—that is your purpose for being--and your being alive allows you to meet them.”

4. Remember that there is no one time frame for suffering.

“Sometimes people who are suffering from trauma think that because their pain lasts for more than a few days they’re a lost cause…they’re destined to live with it for the rest of their lives,” says Lewinski. “Some well-meaning but terribly misguided people will go so far as to say to that suffering person, ‘Come on, tough up. That was five years ago. It’s time you moved on.’

“While there is truth to the fact that you do need to move through the pain and continue on with your life, the tone of the suggestion is often one of surprise that you’re experiencing what you are and tends to come armed with the not-so-subtle implication that you’re weak and out of the ordinary.

“Nothing could be further from the truth.

“People experience trauma in different ways and they move through it at different paces. There are many factors that can play a role in the amount of time it takes someone to come to grips with a traumatic event. There is no set time frame for trauma recovery. The key is taking the right steps to move thoroughly and effectively through the aftermath, not measuring how quickly you can do it.”

5. Remember that untreated post traumatic stress can be fatal.

“There are two ways to look at this fact,” says Lewinski. “The first is that stress can kill you by causing bodily duress that can result in illness and, in some cases, ultimately death.

“The second way to look at this is the fact that officers who are suffering from PTSD are typically unable to mentally focus effectively, their reactions times are slower and their ability to perceive critical things in their surroundings—like a threatening person—is diminished. If you are not treating your PTSD, you are putting yourself and potentially other officers at tactical risk.”

6. Remember that you, your reactions and your difficulties are normal.

“Reactions to crisis—depression, anxiety, psychosomatic ailments, real illness—are all normal reactions to an abnormal situation,” says Lewinski.

“Are you supposed to expect that one morning you’re going to wake up and watch people fly planes into buildings and kill thousands of innocent people and come away unscathed?

“Are you supposed to watch fellow cops, emergency workers and loved ones collapse under the stress of losing a friend, husband, wife, mother or child and just go on with your day?

“Of course not.

“These are abnormal situations and any ‘normal’ person is going to react with the kind of shock that makes them just that…normal. The key is making sure that you are taking the appropriate steps to navigate the experience on your way to moving through it and ensuring that you are not rendered immobilized by the event.

How you can help others

1. Watch what you say.

If you see another officer is having a difficult time, don’t make light of it. Jokes and off-handed comments done in “good humor” can cause additional pain for the officer.

2. Pay close attention to others’ reactions and don’t be afraid to pursue a hunch that someone is having a difficult time.

3. Listen. Non-judgmental listening can be a powerful catalyst to recovery for a traumatized officer.

4. Don’t break confidence.

If an officer puts enough trust in you to share the thoughts and feelings he or she usually vigorously protects, recognize the responsibility that comes with that and be very careful not to betray the confidence by sharing what is said with others or—worst of all—making light of it with others. The results of broken confidence can be devastating.

5. Be prepared to help find the professional resources your fellow officer needs. “People who are in distress often can’t find the life buoy that’s being thrown to them…they need to be guided to it,” says Lewinski. “When stepping in to help an officer, you should be prepared to take the time to help that officer locate and make contact with the professionals who can help.”

[For more, read 20 tips for helping a traumatized officer]

The staff of salutes all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, particularly the brave police officers and other first responders who died while performing their duties with courage and conviction, without hesitation, in the face of extraordinary danger.

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