Media Personnel And The Psychological Effects Of Disaster

Journalists are certainly no strangers to disaster, as many have witnessed floods, fires, earthquakes, car and plane wrecks, and wars-the horrors of Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda (to name a few). Having a front-row view of the ravages of Mother Nature or the cruelty that can overtake human beings in the midst of warfare often takes its toll.

The word "disaster" is derived from Latin and translated, means "the stars are evil". And if, indeed, the stars are evil, how are we to live in a world where evil rules? Our normal senses of self-esteem, personal control, and optimism about the future may flounder in the face of a disastrous event, as does our sense of coherence in a meaningful world.

When the disaster results from a terrorist attack, an act of man rather than an act of nature, the sense of purpose in life that is necessary for health and well-being dissipates. For Americans, and in particular for broadcast crews deep in the center of the horror, the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, with their exposure to an unprecedented level of human suffering, have been particularly devastating. The enormous amount of damage and loss of life is something that, before September 11, happened in other countries. The attacks, taking place on our own soil and targeted at symbols of American might and commerce, have shattered our assumptions about life and shaken the sense of security that most of us take for granted.

Disaster trauma is the state of severe fright that we experience when we are confronted with a sudden, unexpected, life-threatening event over which we have no control and to which we're unable to respond effectively no matter what we do. States of helplessness and powerlessness are sometimes unbearable, especially for people in professions such as broadcasting, whose jobs often depend on staying calm, controlled, and level-headed in difficult circumstances, or for people who may become retraumatized if they grew up in dysfunctional, abusive homes in which powerlessness, fear, and helplessness were daily experiences.

Some people begin to unconsciously assume that because they could do nothing about the traumatic event, they can do nothing about other life events. They lose the capacity to appreciate the connection between their actions and their ability to shape the world to get their needs met. The latest diagnosis "de jour" in the psychological community is PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It was the term initially applied to the particular emotional symptoms experienced by many Vietnam vets and, since then, has been applied to describe those suffering severe emotional distress from a panoply of harrowing events-rape, sexual abuse, airplane crashes, physical abuse, family alcoholism, and others. Although arguably, more than in any other profession, members of the media are often witness to the most intense forms of human tragedy and atrocity, there has not been much research in regard to this group's susceptibility to PTSD. PTSD has a distinct series of symptoms that include hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, sleep disorders, difficulty with concentration, sexual dysfunction, irritability, recurring and distressing recollections, nightmares, flashbacks, grief, and survivor guilt. Depression, sadness, diminished interest in significant activities, social withdrawal, and numbness/denial can occur. Increased use of alcohol and medications is not uncommon. Family life can suffer as irritability and anger are displaced onto loved ones. As a clinical social worker, when I run groups in companies that allow employees to discuss their feelings, the most common comment is that one can't connect to the meaning that life once had for them. Their sense of mastery and their ability to form attachments to others are threatened.

If you are experiencing any number of these symptoms, the most important thing to keep in mind is that they're temporary. You WILL return to your old self. You haven't gone crazy and you don't necessarily need to see a therapist, unless the symptoms last longer than one or two months. But there are things you can do to expedite the return of your psychic equilibrium:
Force yourself to get plenty of physical exercise. The endorphin release and the deep breathing will mitigate the anxiety that underlies PTSD symptoms. And sorry folks, but stay away from the booze. Drinking may feel relaxing in the moment, but in the long run, it exacerbates anxiety and depression.

If you don't already have one, learn a relaxation technique. Yoga, yogic breathing, martial arts, and meditation classes are great ways to begin. Meditation teaches us to live in the present moment and view anxiety as existing only in the past and in the future. It's a great antidote for worry and fear. It also provides a sense of control over thought processes and emotional reactions.

Establish some sense of reasonable mastery (don't overdo it). Even if your job seems meaningless for a while, a job well done provides a sense of competency. Learn a new hobby or take up a new intellectual pursuit. Clean out that closet you've been meaning to organize for the past three years. n Most people know about the endorphins released through strenuous exercise, but few know that endorphins are also released through spending time in a caring community. More than ever, spend time with extended family, religious communities, 12-step groups, and your golfing buddies. Make an effort to form new, caring attachments. Isolation during emotionally difficult times is ill-advised. n Make use of colleagues to talk about feelings at appropriate times. If you're having trouble setting priorities and feel overwhelmed, ask for help from your supervisor. Focus on one task at a time. If necessary, ask management for a counselor to come in to help the group vent and share feelings.

Make use of this experience to re-examine your basic values and belief systems. Call upon any spiritual orientation you may have. Personally, I have a Buddhist bent. As I stood in New York's Sheridan Square on that Tuesday morning and watched the Twin Towers tumble, I had an odd reaction. One of the teachings of the Buddha was that all phenomena are impermanent and that human suffering results from attachments, craving, and desires for those things that by their very nature will vanish. Watching the Twin Towers crumble reminded me of human mortality, vulnerability, and the speed with which life passes. Amidst my feelings of horror and disbelief, I also felt a new appreciation for the value, preciousness, and beauty of living life in the present moment.