9/11 changed Americans’ perceptions about their sense of security, the threat of terrorism, and their place in the world, and the attack’s impact on the mental health of New Yorkers was unprecedented. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were affected because they were in Lower Manhattan at the time, knew people who died, or witnessed the towers fall from a distance and experienced the attack’s aftereffects on the city.
Most people who experience trauma don’t develop mental health problems. You don’t need to give them some sort of preventative measure or treatment whatsoever. Yet, for those who are more symptomatic, anxious, or struggling with immense guilt, we need to develop ways to track their symptoms, and if they do not recover by themselves within the first several weeks, they will need timely trauma-informed treatments and perhaps medications provided by trained mental health professionals.
Many people are exposed to disasters via social media and TV. Interestingly, current COVID studies have shown that hyperexposure to social media is correlated with high anxiety and depression. Our own 9/11 research had unpacked this linkage by showing that exposure to trauma via the media is particularly harmful among those with a history of trauma and with previous mental health problems.
COVID is very different from any threat of natural disaster, technological disaster, or terrorist event. The COVID threat is very diffused; there is no one epicenter. You can be infected anywhere, and the threat goes up and down. The sense of fear and psychological responses is very, very different.
Nevertheless, what we understood from 9/11 is that the effect of extreme stress is not limited to only one condition like PTSD. With COVID, like 9/11, you see effects on sleep habits, you may see an increase in consumption of alcohol and drugs, you can see both depression and PTSD, and, of course, you can see grief among those who lost loved ones. So, what we understand is that people may deserve a more holistic kind of approach toward their needs.
Exposure to trauma alters memory processes. Though we are not great at remembering positive events in our lives—those are taken for granted—negative events are better remembered, in much greater detail, and their influence in our brains is greater.
Yet my key observation about 9/11, 20 years ago, and now COVID is that as a nation, as a collective group of people, we have been changed quite a bit. We don’t enjoy anymore a sense of seclusion and invincibility, and as a nation America has transformed to become more hypervigilant and easily startled. Time will tell whether 9/11 and COVID changed our lives forever.
By Yuval Neria, PhD, who has studied war trauma and PTSD even prior to 9/11.