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New Study on Effects of 9/11 Attacks Charts Impacts and Effective Coping Mechanisms

One of the first studies of the long-term impact of the 2001 terrorist incidents on ordinary Americans who were not direct victims has found that the majority of the survey's participants (73%) felt that the 9/11 events had changed them or their outlook on life. The most common responses were that they felt more vulnerable, were shocked by the attacks, and experienced a change in how they want to live their lives with a focus on living life to the fullest

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Suzanne Thompson, professor of Psychology at Pomona College in Claremont CA, and her research assistants interviewed 501 people, who were not direct victims, in the second year following the attacks (September 2002 to July 2003) and focused on feelings of distress (anxiety, loss of control, personal vulnerability) and fear of flying.

According to Thompson, "Most participants felt more distress (65%) and a stronger fear of flying (55%) immediately after the event than they did before the attacks. Anxiety is at a lower level now, but is still significantly higher than pre-attack levels. In fact, the current levels of distress and concern about flying remain surprisingly high even in this one- to two-year period following the incident." Of those whose distress increased immediately after the attacks, almost one-half are currently still experiencing heightened anxiety, loss of control, and vulnerability. Fear of flying and reluctance to fly also remain elevated for a substantial number of people (31%).

The study also examined the actions and coping strategies that were associated with experiencing distress. According to cognitive adaptation theory, actively processing threatening material, finding understanding and meaning, and keeping a sense of control should lead to successful coping with a traumatic experience. Consistent with this, participants who reported that they used avoidance and distraction are currently more distressed and have more fear of flying, while those who tend to think about and deal with their problems are less distressed.

In addition, the participants who felt they understood why the attacks happened and who focused on ways in which their risk is low are less distressed. It is likely that thinking about the terrorist attack and engaging with one's fears may have helped people make sense of what happened and find adaptive ways to think about their personal risk.

Because feeling that the attacks were understandable and judging that one's risk was low were both important correlates of good coping, participants' perceptions about these two topics were examined in further detail. Participants identified a wide variety of reasons why the attacks occurred ranging from US foreign relations policy to the actions of zealots and crazy people. Three reasons were most strongly associated with feeling a sense of understanding and meaning: Believing that the attacks were due to misguided U.S. foreign policy, economic disparity between the U.S. and other countries, and the actions of crazy people. Although these are very different explanations, a belief in any one of them seemed to satisfy the need for understanding.

The participants who felt that they were at low risk of being involved in a terrorist attack focused on the fact that flying is safer than driving, or felt that due to increased security and the singular nature of the attacks they would not happen again. People who did not feel that the risk was low did a very different analysis. They were not reassured by the changes in security and felt they could be easily breached by future terrorists. The vivid nature of the attacks and even the presence of numerous security personnel at airports increased their sense that a repeat attack was possible.

Some people have made an effort to reduce their risk of being in a future attack by flying only in some areas of the country, screening fellow passengers, or planning how to attack hijackers if that is necessary. These strategies to control one's personal risk were not associated with distress or fear of flying, so they did not seem to work to reduce concern. Although people with a stronger sense of personal control were less distressed, it appears that actively working to decrease one's risk did not reduce anxiety.

There were gender differences in the impact of the attacks. Women were more strongly affected than were men. The gender difference in reactions to a public disaster has been found in other studies and may be due to women's propensity to report emotional distress or their stronger sense of vulnerability to physical attack.

"The results have important implications," explains Thompson. "From 1 to 2 years after the 9/11 attacks, a significant number of Americans are still experiencing increased anxiety, loss of control, and concerns about their safety. This suggests that distress is not gradually dissipating in the general public and the long-term effects are more widespread than is usually recognized."

"People who are still feeling distressed by the events should understand that their reactions are not abnormal," says Thompson. "It also appears that more open discussion of people's concerns about the 2001 attacks could be useful. A number of interviewees commented that they welcomed the chance to talk about their reactions and did not have other opportunities. Open discussion can help people find ways to understand why the attacks happened and could expose them to an optimistic perspective that focuses on lower personal risk."