Stress Relief: For Disasters Great and Small

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On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was driving down Fifth Avenue in New York City and thinking about the patients I was scheduled to see in my office that Tuesday.

Smoke was rising between buildings far downtown. Stopped at a red light, I could hear pedestrians talking to each other about reports that a plane had accidentally crashed into the World Trade Center.

Horrified, I wondered how this could happen and was praying that there were no casualties when I entered my office to hear the phone ringing. My daughter was crying, so was her baby son in her arms. She told me she had just seen a second plane fly directly into the World Trade Center and that television reports were calling the hits “terrorism” . She was crying, she said, for the victims, for her friends and her husband’s friends who worked in the buildings, for our safety and for her son’s future.

This was not my daughter’s first disaster. Her son needed life-saving surgery when he was just five weeks old and then constant care during his successful recovery. But this was her first national disaster and far sooner than I, she realized how much this trauma would change all our lives. “What are we going to do?” she asked me. “How do we live with this?”   I was in shock, but I knew the answer. “We’ll figure it out” , I said, “because we’re built to survive.”

By that evening, I was on the air for FOX News Channel and saying it again: “We’re built for emotional survival.”

Every one of our stress-responses serves a function, no matter how strange it may seem at first. Shock and numbness buffer our fear and permit us to do function on automatic pilot in the first hours of a trauma. Hyper-vigilance keeps us on alert until the danger has passed. Flashbacks remind us of dangers that may return. “But how do we separate the real from the surreal, and the functional from the futile?” callers were asking. “How can we tell when the normal becomes abnormal or even worse? When should we worry? And, how do we know what’s coming next?”

Since day one of the War against Terrorism, I have been on FOX News Channel with stress-relief information and have made this nation's emotional survival my priority. I've done live interviews with survivors and with families of those who did not survive. I've taken live public calls from viewers and held the hands of shell-shocked private patients. I've covered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, nightmares, flashbacks, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, the psychology of terrorism, survivor’s guilt, children’s fears, and mourners’ pain.

I've answered the questions: “What do I say when I call?” , “How long does it take to digest a shock?” ,  “Can we ever adjust to living with clear and present danger?” , and “What do we say to the children?” I've busted myths about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and spelled out the "Sequence of Return after Disaster." I've explained why talk is so important for healing and why it takes two years for the brain to absorb losses. I've given viewers and patients permission to go on with their daily lives and both the strategies and support they need in order to actually do it.

Now, I have done all this for you, too.

Stress Relief: For Disasters Great and Small is dedicated to all those who have asked me to put my life-changing advice on paper. Profits from this book will go to The Stress Program at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York Center and other charities. Click here for more information on the book.

The Director of The Stress Program at the Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, Psychiatry Professor, the author of seven books about stress including The Female Stress Syndrome, The Male Stress Syndrome, Quick Fixes & Small Comforts, and KidStress, former NBC News Channel 4 health contributor and host of FOX News Channel’s Beyond the News, Georgia Witkin is now a FOX & Friends regular and FOX News Channel contributor.  Dr. Georgia Witkin responds to the 9/11 call for action.

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Copyright 2002: Dr. Georgia Witkin