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The psychological toll of terrorism

Posted on 03-08-16 in Mental Health

The psychological toll of terrorism

“Our stairwell exited out onto that mezzanine level. At that point, I could look out across the plaza at 2 World Trade Center. That’s when I realized the gravity of what had happened. I saw dead bodies everywhere, and none that I saw were intact. It was hard to tell how many. Fifty maybe? I scanned for a second and then focused on the head of a young woman with some meat on it. I remember my hand coming up in front of my face to block the sight. Then I took off. As I ran, people were coming out of another stairwell. I stopped and said, ‘Don’t look outside! Don’t look outside!’ The windows were stained with blood. Someone who’d jumped had fallen very close to the building.” This is an excerpt originally published in Esquire from a 9/11 survivor when the twin towers were taken down by a terrorist attack on the United States — a day the U.S. will never forget. This horrific account is one of many stories that have been told from victims of terrorist attacks around the world.

Coping with traumatic events

From 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing to recent attacks on Paris, and bombings in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, terrorist attacks occur around the world regardless of whether the nation is weak or strong. The effects of these attacks are devastating on individuals, instilling fear, disrupting social function, and causing mental turmoil in people and communities, regardless of whether it is chemical or biological warfare, or an isolated attack.

Most terrorist attacks only last for a few minutes to hours, but the effects on individuals may last a lifetime. Emotional and behavioral changes are direct effects from terrorist attacks and, even if these changes are not enough to be diagnosed as psychiatric conditions, they are still enough to wreak havoc on the mind of those affected. Fear, anxiety, flashbacks, loss of sleep, paranoia and high sensitivity to loud sounds are some of the aftermath effects from witnessing a terrorist attack. Psychological disorders that occur after a terrorist attack include acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bereavement and depression. Direct victims of terrorist attacks are usually the ones who are most affected. Indirect individuals usually are affected for a short time, but are able to return to their normal lives relatively quickly once the news buzz about the attack has died down.

“Despite wide variations in the number killed in the attacks and the timing of assessments, there is remarkable uniformity that within (two) years of the incident (30 to 40 percent) of the people closest to the site of the attack are likely to develop a clinically diagnosable disorder. Few data are available for longer-term outcomes … (Two) years after the Pentagon attack on 11 September over (20 percent) of employees who were present and responded to the survey were found to have PTSD,” according to a study.

Shared sense of community

Although it is proven that terrorist attacks instill fear and mental anguish on individuals, it has also been shown that these disastrous attacks result in a more cohesive community among groups who have been terrorized. These attacks bolster a sense of close ties to the community as individuals congregate to depend on each other and share their stories, creating even stronger ties to their neighborhoods, cities and countries.

“This is a powerful social effect which has been witnessed many times before. For example, during the London Blitz in World War II, many people noted the widespread camaraderie and closeness of what became known as the Blitz Spirit. Some aspects of this effect have already been seen in the (U.S.) after 9/11. While many commentators talked about the sense of fear and panic sweeping the country, it was equally clear that there was a massive and widespread sense of shared community. Sales of American flags rocketed and millions of homes flew flags in a very public display of shared identity. Similar trends have been seen in Israel, where relentless terrorist attacks, rather than shattering society psychologically, have instead witnessed a remarkable resilience effect,” according to an article from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.

At the end of day it is important to seek treatment for mental anguish and give thanks for those who are safe. Terrorist attacks may not end any time in the near future, so it is imperative to come together as a close-knit community.

The Sovereign Health Group is a leading treatment group with locations across the United States that help treat people with addiction, mental health disorders and co-occurring conditions. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at the Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at