Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Grief and Dread: Thinking About 9/11

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 12, 2011

“Grief and dread,” are the words echoed in the memories of 9/11. The paradigm of trauma, the events of September 11th, exemplify the characteristics which often lead to PTSD. This was a sudden and unexpected tragic event. If there were terrorism on the tenth anniversary, yesterday, this would not have been unexpected, but it could have been a tragedy. The grief is the loss, but the dread, is how out of control our lives can be, despite routines that we do day in and day out. It was World War I that made psychiatrists sensitive to this issue of trauma; this issue of the particular pain of sudden and unexpected harm. It is psychologically easier to have a diagnosis of cancer, giving fair warning, if you will, to the person about their upcoming demise. Trauma, however, feels so unfair. There is no way to prepare; there is no way to slowly change your mindset from contentment to helplessness. It happens way too fast. Time is an important dimension when it comes to receiving bad news. The mind seems to need some preparation, such that without that, there is an uncomfortable jolt to the mental apparatus. Consequently, the unexpected nature of these events like 9/11, make them etched in our collective minds, such that we will always be able to swap stories about what this terrorism meant to us on that day. We are forced to remember that our old paradigms can change in a moment. Once we “learn” that, we never forget. Trauma and memory often go together. The association between the event and the shock, causes a deeper imprinting in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory. This long-lasting memory also causes the dread; the dread of knowing there are a lot more experiences in life that we simply cannot prepare for. This brings us back to the moment; the moment is all we have. We all know this, but sudden, unexpected, tragic events bring us back to this truism. We have to plan for the future, but we certainly cannot count on it.

2 Responses to “Grief and Dread: Thinking About 9/11”

  1. Shelly said

    What are some symptoms of PTSD? How can we differentiate these symptoms from other anxiety disorders? Is there any treatment for it? What can we do for the “dread” we feel, about the lack of control over our own lives (not necessarily in connection to the actions of 9/11)?

    • Shirah said

      Avoidance, numbing, easy startle, flashbacks and nightmares, to name a few. As opposed to other anxiety disorders, PTSD is more like a dissociative state. The person feels like they have been transported back to the moment of the tragic event, often triggered by some reminder of the experience. This dissociative-like experience causes a lot the dread and the need for numbing. The “dread” is something we all have to manage. The art, as in so many things, is to recognize the reality of trauma, without letting that realization take away from the potential joys and fulfillment in life. This process, as we all know, is a life-long journey. One that we never master, but we ebb and flow in our capacity to deal with the good and the bad in life.

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