Volume 6, September 2001: Stress Reactions to Terrorism and Major Disasters

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2001 ISSN # 1545-8873

“The object of terrorism is to take your life away from you by making you too afraid to live it.” — “Dr. Phil” on the Oprah Winfrey Show

“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. In action is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all. Make a move” — Norman Vincent Peale


  • What’s Hot in Leadership
  • Frequently Asked Questions from Leaders
  • Education
  • Useful Websites & Newsletters
  • Articles/Publications
  • Maintaining Yourself as a Leader

What’s Hot in Leadership

  • Making the workplace safe, secure and free from assault in all its forms. Zero tolerance for violence.
  • Attention to the importance of ritual and ceremony to process grief and anger about events, such as that of September 11, 2001.
  • Sensitivity to feelings and reaching out to help others through traumatic times. CEOs, weeping on TV news from loss of their staff in terrorist attacks, were hailed as the new model of leadership.
  • Building a sense of continuity and community in the organization in support of one another.

Frequently Asked Questions

“After September 11’s events, we should be getting back to business. Yet no one feels like working. What’s going on?”
Most of the U.S. is going through a post-disaster response, which can last from days to weeks. The initial response to the shock can consist of feeling stunned and numb, increased confusion, lingering sadness, fear and anxiety. Physical symptoms, like headache, nausea and chest pain, may be a body’s way of expressing the trauma. This disaster response typically lasts a couple of days to up to four weeks. Worries about safety and sensing a loss of control are part of a normal response to an abnormal traumatic event.
“What can I do to help people through this?”
Let people know that this is normal in the aftermath of abnormally traumatic events. Give people a “safe place” to express their pain, come together and take the steps to begin the process of healing. Encourage ventilation of feelings, but try to route negative thinking into positive action steps and the taking of control – such as donating help, blood, or money to disaster victims. Restore routine and encourage healthy living. Use ceremony, such as lighting candles, creating a memorial, channeling expression through music, poetry and art, to honor the lives lost and bring closure to the trauma with acts of love.
“Will some people need more help than others?”
Be alert to symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which will interfere with normal daily functioning. If any of the following symptoms persist for more than 4 weeks or begin later than a month after the event, steer the person to psychological help:
  • Reexperiencing the event by instrusive recollections, flashbacks, nightmares.
  • Avoidance of people or things that are reminders, which might bring on intrusive symptoms.
  • Detachment or feeling emotionally numb.
  • Increased arousal, irritability, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, overwhelming nervousness and an increased startle response.
  • Dramatic mood changes, irritability or lingering depression

People with preexisting psychiatric or medical conditions may be more prone to this type of reaction.


“How to” pamphlets on a number of trauma topics at The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.

Psychologists recommend ways to cope with the national tragedy at Mental Help (.net).

The APA’s Web site includes tips for recovering from disasters and other traumatic events: Managing traumatic stress.

Mary Anne Kelly, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Living With Dying, offers her thoughts at Down the Long Road of Grief.

Mental Help (.net) provides a searchable database for conferences, workshops and mental health topics.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry offers ideas for helping children through disaster: Helping Children After A Disaster.

Useful Websites & Newsletters

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress maintains a site on acute trauma stress management.

If you are looking for treatment resources, visit the Directory of Mental Health Practitioners at Therapist Directory – Find a Therapist and the Treatment Center Directory .

David Baldwin’s Trauma Information Pages contain information for clinicians and researchers in the traumatic-stress field.


Maintaining Yourself as a Leader

If the disaster response overwhelms you, close the door and let it go. Share sorrow silently at World Trade Tribute. Sound off with words, music and literature – poetry, quotes, verses, scripture – at Fast Company’s The Power of Words. But don’t be fearful of showing your true feelings to those you lead and of creating a safe place for them to do the same. Only together, joining with survivors, professionals and other people in our community, can we revive our collective spirit and find meaning in the aftermath of pain.


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