“September 11 Syndrome” Book Offers Needed Help for Anxious Days, Sleepless Nights

A new, persistent stress disorder – “the September 11 Syndrome” – has been identified in a just-released book that describes a widespread pattern of chronic anxiety and depressive symptoms that have emerged in the aftermath of recurrent exposure to the traumatic events of September 11.  The syndrome is marked by lingering levels of chronic anxiety, stress, tension, worrisome “what if?” negative thinking, sleep disruption,  troubling visual imagery, and fear-related difficulties coping with previously routine daily tasks. 

In The September 11 Syndrome:  Anxious Days and Sleepless Nights – Seven Steps to Getting a Grip in Uncertain Times, best-selling author and well-known stress expert, psychologist Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D. explains that the anxiety syndrome is compounded by a chronic sense of personal exposure, vulnerability and helplessness that is fueled in no small measure by the steady drumbeat of  “non-specific” warnings that other terrorist attacks are imminent.  

Such warnings spike our lingering anxiety, fears and vulnerability, especially when they are followed by the mixed-message admonition to “be alert, but live your normal lives.”  But, most average Americans share the perception that despite our exposure to “near certain,” but random, unpredictable and potentially deadly, destructive terrorist acts, our personal actions are essentially futile to predict, curtail or escape the danger.  According to Dr. Braiker, these conditions are a psychological setup for strongly conditioned anxiety and a state of “learned helplessness,” otherwise known by its clinical name, depression.  “When what they warn us about has no clear attachment to what we can do to make a difference in our own lives, it makes us feel like sitting ducks,” Braiker said.

A "New Normalcy"

While volumes have been written about how the tragic events of September 11 have changed the nation and the world, Dr. Braiker’s new book frames the changes in personal psychological terms.  It is the first book to offer pragmatic, effective advice to help average people deal with the “New Normalcy” in which we now must face fear and uncertainty as the grim reality of our daily lives.  But the book maintains a positive spin showing readers not only how to cope but even to rebound from adversity and to thrive in these challenging times.  It provides readers step-by-step guidance to reduce their own anxiety and enhance their sense of security, comfort and, most important, personal control.

“The floor has been raised on everyone’s level of anxiety,” said Dr. Braiker, “but it is still possible to regain a sense of control and live normal or close-to-normal lives.  Moreover, people need to feel they can reclaim a sense of personal courage, which means moving forward in the presence of fear, not without it.”

The September 11 Syndrome is the author’s name for the individual psychological consequences of the worldwide sea change in how civilized society has been forced to cope with daily life in the wake of new levels of inventive evil.  While governments struggle with enhancing security and reducing risks, individuals are challenged by symptoms of persistent anxiety, worry and stress, sleep disruption, intrusive negative thoughts and disturbing images, lingering low-grade depression, avoidance of fear-provoking activities or places, increased irritability, and a general feeling of loss of control and helplessness.

In just a matter of months, we have gone from high denial (“The evil we see elsewhere can’t happen here”), observed Braiker, to a state of fearful acceptance (“It’s not if but when,”) and we are urged continually to stay alert.  “But, when you combine chronic anxiety, sleep problems and constant ‘alertness,’ you run the real risk of becoming hyper-vigilant, which is a state of near-panic,” Braiker said.  

No Paradigm Exists for this Experience     

September 11 was the day phobias turned into reality; anxiety turned into panic; and the only sure thing was uncertainty.  But, in the wake of September 11, as the panic and horror slowly subsided, many people were still left with anxious days and sleepless nights.  “Just because some people may have stopped talking openly about their fears of another terrorist attack – until the newest spate of warnings – the topic and anxiety constantly lurk just under the skin,” said Dr. Braiker.  When will the other shoe drop? is still the question on everyone’s mind, if not their lips.  How will they come at us?  Where and when?  How safe is it to fly, to open mail, to go to banks, the mall, or just home to your apartment building?  What common daily occurrences that we currently take for granted will we be deprived of next?

“The September 11 attacks and their aftermath simply have no paradigm or model in the American psychological experience,” Dr. Braiker noted.  “We must all accept and adapt to this New Normalcy – a new psychological reality that, among other things, acknowledges that fear is normal and even adaptive.  In fact, it would be foolish and even risky to deny the presence of appropriate fear or its causes.  Acknowledging fear is the first step in developing personal courage,” Dr. Braiker asserted.          

In her book, Dr. Braiker points out how the September 11 Syndrome is constantly re-stimulated and exacerbated by the recurrent media exposure which have seared previously unimaginable, horrific images onto nearly everyone’s minds’ eyes.  Never before in history has such a devastating event been seen “live” by so many hundreds of millions of people, and captured on film to be replayed over and over again.  This exposed all of America and all of the world to the acute trauma of 9/11, not just the residents of New York and Washington D.C.  “Usually we see only the aftermath of tragedy, not the actual event and the devastating loss of lives unfolding before our eyes,” she said.  And this unwanted imagery periodically comes back to haunt us, particularly on anniversaries and commemorations of the event.  “Ironically, while we want and indeed need to preserve our memories of that day, we inadvertently prolong our anxiety and emotional disturbance by continual re-exposure to the imagery of planes crashing into buildings and of the towers imploding,” Dr. Braiker noted.

“It’s not just that we are at war; we’ve been at war before,” she said.  “But now we are under attack where we live for the first time.  There is no psychological category or concept in our mind for handling this; people simply don’t know where to put this civilian exposure to terrorism in their heads. But, psychologists recognize that living with the threat of random, unpredictable acts of terror has the same effect on people as on laboratory rats trapped in a cage, subjected to random electrical shocks.  These are the conditions that breed high stress, anxiety and disabling helplessness.”

"A Rainbow of Angst"

Dr. Braiker also pointed out that some warnings from our nation’s leaders might wind up doing the nation more psychological harm than good, especially when no effective action plan for individuals is prescribed.   She was referring to Vice President Dick Cheney, who said that the next terrorist attack “is not a question of if, but when;” FBI Director Robert Mueller, who predicted that Middle East-type suicide bombers in the U.S. are “inevitable;” and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said that terrorists are certain to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons “and will not hesitate to use them.”  

And, she called the Homeland Security’s five color-coded warning levels “a rainbow of angst.”

“What is the average person supposed to do with this random and frightening information, except feel more anxious and out of control?” Dr. Braiker asked.  “A constant state of nervousness, fear and heightened vigilance will wear a person out and produce a vicious cycle of anxious days and sleepless nights, resulting in compromised health.”  Such anxiety needs to be managed before it develops into paralyzing depression and damaging stress, according to Dr. Braiker. 

The September 11 Syndrome offers seven practical, concrete steps for getting a grip and regaining a better sense of control and coping with the “new normalcy.”  Simply stated, life has changed and the book talks about acknowledging that and what that means to us psychologically.  Because despite the turbulent and uncertain times in which we now live, people still have to fly, get up and go to work, take their kids to school, go shopping, go to theaters, take vacations, have fun, and keep their families together. 

Psychologically, as the book illustrates, people feel better when there are things they can do proactively to reclaim a sense of control.   

Seven Steps to Getting a Grip

And with a better sense of control over our fears and excessive worries, the book shows how to turn our anxieties into what Dr. Braiker refers to as a “new psychological hardiness,” embodied in the concept of connection, comfort and courage – three of the seven steps she outlines to help people thrive as well as cope with the uncertainties and risks of our time.

The book shows readers how to recognize the symptoms of the September 11 Syndrome and, in clear prescriptive language, to: 

  • Transform negative thoughts and images into positive ones
  • Overcome understandable fears -- from flying to driving over bridges
  • Gain control over constant worry
  • Take action against helplessness and depression
  • Enhance the comfort of personal “safety” zones
  • Strengthen connections to others
  • Discover personal courage every day

“Wanton acts of terrorism are beyond the control of the average person, which puts fear in our hearts as well as our heads,” said Dr. Braiker.  “The world has become a psychological minefield, but that does not mean that we can’t overcome the September 11 Syndrome that has seized the nation.  I believe we can rise above it, cope successfully, and even thrive.”