Most of you know Sharon and I lived just outside NYC on 9/11. Today, I thought it appropriate to share an article we published in the aftermath. (It was also picked up by Enterpreneur magazine online )
All of your thoughts most welcome…
On Tuesday September 11th, we were running a moderator training program at our offices in Syosset, a suburb of New York City. People were collecting for breakfast before the second day of the workshop began. One of the managers walked in with an incredulous look on her face. “Did you hear? A plane just collided with the World Trade Center!” Shortly after, our VP’s husband called to say that he saw the crash happen from his Garden City office window. As he was on the phone, describing this incredible incident, the second plane exploded through the next tower before his eyes. You remember the sight. We’ve all seen the shocking replay over and over on TV.
Time stopped. Or did it just go into slow motion? Then the Pentagon news. Or was it the crumbling of the icons of our financial world? Can’t remember. Events blurred. And, then the crash in Pennsylvania. TERRORISTS HAVE ATTACKED AMERICA!! First thoughts, who do we know that works downtown? Oh my god, we sent Christine into the city! Michele’s brother in law works there. We hungered for information. Turned on the radio, but could only get a local college station that kept announcing closing of classes interspersed with a little more global information about the fear-provoking , can’t really be possible string of tragedies.
The class of 10 people sat stiffly riveted in their seats, stunned looking to me for leadership. One woman kept asking me, “What’s the best thing to do in this circumstance? You’re a psychologist. What should we do? There must be something we should be doing now, isn’t there?” The rest of the office attacked the phone lines attempting to contact family and friends to reassure themselves of their loved one’s safety. People expressed feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, uncertainty. How were people in the class going to get back home? California, Seattle, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Manhattan. Long Island was trapped with all roads closed to the city. There were two more days of training. Do we go ahead? And if we could, should we? How callous would that be!
No one felt capable of attending to work. We officially closed the office. The workshop attendees congregated in my home to sit glued in front of the big screen TV and watch the unfolding of the psychotic display of hate. The word “surreal” was mentioned over and over. We had lunch delivered to the house instead of the office. Some people spoke, most watched and listened in silence. What were they thinking? Were they thinking? What were they feeling? Were they feeling? Could they articulate their feelings? One woman nervously rambled on and on about the importance of getting home. In the course of an hour, everything had changed forever.
Acts of terrorism throw people off balance. In addition to having to cope with the grief and shock of sudden loss, this acute stress and trauma leave people feeling helpless and fearful. Seemingly random acts of violence targeted at civilians strip the victim society of a sense of control and security. It doesn’t make sense. Nothing will ever be the same. Who can we trust? How will we ever get back on an airplane? How were we so lucky to survive, when we could have been at a meeting in one of those structures? A woman who worked in the suite next door was having lunch at Windows on the World. A man down the hall was on flight 11.
The initial reaction: Shock
People first respond to drastic change with shock. They say things like “I can’t believe this is happening” or “I don’t believe it.”
Shock serves a protective function, numbing us to pain and fear. Until the disaster, all was well. People knew what was expected of them and they knew how to react. How to get to work. How long it would take? How to make a phone call or make a plane reservation. They had, most importantly, a sense of predictability and control.
When catastrophe strikes, suddenly everything once counted on is called into question. Shock has an evolutionary biological foundation. When threatened, we either fight or run away. This reaction served a protective function when primitive man faced life-threatening situations. But fighting or fleeing our threats are not options in the workplace. Instead, we become immobilized. We stop what we are doing and don’t attend to and retain information.
Who Is Affected?
After an attack of the magnitude of September 11th events, we all feel the impact. People who have experienced or witnessed a terrorist attack including viewing the blow by blow account on the media coverage may go into a state of acute stress reaction. According to the literature on stress responses, we become vulnerable to:
- Recurring thoughts of the incident
- Becoming afraid of everything, not leaving the house, or isolating yourself
- Stopping usual functioning, no longer maintaining daily routines
- Survivor guilt — “Why did I survive? I should have done something more.”
- Tremendous sense of loss
- Reluctance to express your feelings, losing a sense of control over your life
- Impaired concentration, confusion, disorientation, difficulty making decisions, short attention spans, forgetfulness, hypervigilance, free floating anxiety, self blame, etc. etc.
Coping with the Trauma
First and foremost we all need to remind ourselves that strange feelings and reactions are a normal response to an abnormal situation. In the aftermath of this type of tragedy, our jobs are a godsend. The workplace lends itself to recovery and the beginning of the healing process in a number of ways.
People need routine, a return to normalcy. So when possible, try to return to typical patterns as you’ve done them before. Structure time and keep busy.
Everyone in the work environment will be feeling stressed. Check in with each other to see how everyone is doing. Take some time to talk to clients, co-workers and employees about personal experiences of the disaster. Often people need to rehash the story to diffuse feelings. In the verbalization of feelings, they become more manageable and less threatening. Verbalizing helps people regain a sense of control.
Try to avoid getting immersed in media coverage. Research shows that repeated viewing of such disturbing events can exacerbate the effects of trauma.
Encourage people to try to eat regular and balanced meals and get plenty of rest even if when they don’t feel like it. Emotional strength is contingent on physical strength.
For those suffering more extreme losses and resultant stress symptoms, avoid telling them “you’re lucky, it could have been worse.” Instead, say you’re sorry that such an event happened and you want to understand and assist them.
Remind people that our American institutions of democracy are still in place and our government is intact. We’re a resilient society that has a long history of bouncing back from adversity. Consider company wide sponsorship of relief efforts to build morale.
Remember times when you as a company have overcome adversity in the past. Try to remember what you did that helped you overcome the fear and helplessness in that situation.
Think positively. Realize that things will get better. Be realistic about the time it takes to feel better.
If a staff member is having trouble coping with the terrorist attacks, consider seeking help from a psychologist or other mental health professional. There are many ways to feel traumatized by terrorist incidents. Psychologists and other licensed mental health professionals are trained to help people cope and take positive steps toward managing their feelings and behaviors
Recognize that the nature of terrorist attacks creates fear and uncertainty about the future. Continue to do the things in your life that you enjoy. Try to avoid preoccupation with the things you cannot control to the extent that they prevent you from living your normal life. Remember the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
The best revenge is a good life.
Set achievable stepwise, controllable goals for your company to succeed. Terrorists are bullies who want to undermine the victims’ sense of self esteem, to cause us to feel fear, insecurity and guilt. We can defeat them by recommitting to our American values and work ethic, by reminding ourselves of our individuality and unique talents.. A succession of little successes are empowering, rebuilding self respect and self confidence for the individual and the company.