The anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th brings up intense emotions for many Americans. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Dr. Roxanne Cohen Silver of the University of California Irvine about the anxiety felt by people across the country. Dr. Silver’s research found that watching the terrorist strikes on television produced stress symptoms similar to those experienced by people present at the attacks.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The date 9/11 is burned into our hearts and memories. Even now, ten years after the disastrous attacks, the images and emotions are still vivid.
The trauma broadcast over TV was felt far and wide, beyond those who witnessed the terrorist strike. Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver is a professor of Psychology & Social Behavior and Medicine at the University of California Irvine.
SILVER: I studied the impact of September 11th amongst individuals who were not directly impacted. So, I conducted a study of several thousand people across the United States, most of which knew nobody who died that day, and I followed this national sample for several years capturing the emotional, physical and psychological consequences of the attacks over time.
GELLERMAN: Well, what did you find?
SILVER: We saw posttraumatic stress symptoms in the early aftermath of 9/11 that mimicked those seen amongst individuals who were directly impacted by the attacks. And, in general, over time remitted for the vast majority of the population.
GELLERMAN: Well, we all witnessed this and watched it on TV, and we were traumatized. I know I felt like I was hit in the gut.
SILVER: Yes, we did find in our study that about 60 percent of the population witnessed some portion of the attacks live as they unfolded on television. That is, they either saw the second plane hit the building, or they witnessed one of the buildings fall. And we found that individuals who saw the attacks live on television were more likely to be experiencing physical symptoms over the years as well as psychological ones.
GELLERMAN: What kind of physical distress did you find in people?
SILVER: We actually were able to see increased numbers of heart problems- cardio vascular effects in individuals who responded to the attacks with a lot of distress and continued to worry about terrorism over time. Those individuals were more likely to experience new onset physical problems in the first three years after the attacks.
GELLERMAN: Well, now that we have the tenth anniversary, and a lot of us are seeing and recalling and remembering the events of that day- are we being re-traumatized?
SILVER: I believe that there is a possibility that re-witnessing graphic images of the attacks may in fact reactivate some of the immediate post-9/11 distress. And, I, in fact, discourage people from watching the graphic images of that day. I think that we can memorialize and commemorate the events of September 11th in a respectful way, without being re-traumatized, without needing to reexamine the graphic pictures of that day.
GELLERMAN: Do you remember where you were and how you felt when you first heard about the 9/11 attacks?
SILVER: I do, and I will tell you, however, that fascinating research suggests that while we may believe that our memories of where we were and how we were feeling are accurate, they may in fact be wrong.
But I was in California at the time, and I was corresponding via email with somebody who was in Washington who said, ‘It’s terrible, what’s going on here,’ and I didn’t know what she was talking about because it was so early, and I remember calling out to my husband to say, ‘turn on the television.’
GELLERMAN: I had to turn off my TV set after awhile. I just, I couldn’t watch anymore.
SILVER: Well, in fact, I saw the buildings fall, and I must acknowledge that I have never watched television about the attacks again. I was quite sure that watching these images were not going to be psychologically beneficial. And, I think my research suggests that there is no benefit to watching these graphic images - certainly more than once.
GELLERMAN: So, has this left a societal scar? Does it heal over? Does it mend?
SILVER: I would not say that our society in general has been scarred by September 11th. I think that that are many ways in which we have changed as a result. We no longer have a sense of invulnerability; we recognize that an attack like September 11th is possible. Alternatively, if we would have asked a group of people about that on September 10th, 2001, I think most people would not have believed that such a thing was possible.
GELLERMAN: After 9/11, it seemed people were, well, nicer to each other. What happened to that?
SILVER: We did see that people were able to see some positives in the aftermath of the horror. And, I think that we see that often in the aftermath in any community-wide trauma. There is increased donations of blood and money, and I think that that is part of human nature and certainly part of our society to rally round those who have been traumatized by an event and do the best we can to help them get through it.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver is a Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior and Medicine at UC Irvine. Dr. Silver, thanks so much, I really appreciate it.
SILVER: Thank you very much for having me.
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