Sadness, anxiety are healthy responses to national tragedy
Three weeks after terrorist attacks on our nation, Americans are dealing with the shock and grief of the tragedies, fear of danger around them and the anxiety of war.
"Most of these reactions are normal acute responses," says Dr. John Casada. "When people are faced with a national tragedy, we expect them to feel sad, angry or anxious. We expect them to think, 'What if that happened to my family?'" Dr. Casada is assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the emotional trauma program at the Health Science Center. He also is a member of the post-traumatic stress disorder clinical team at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System.
There are no rules for grieving, and there is no time limit for healing. A sign of good mental health is a feeling of sadness when tragedies happen. Healthy ways to cope include getting involved in something productive, such as donating blood or volunteering, and distracting one's self with daily activities that are consistent with one's values, such as spending time with family or at work.
"Anything that takes people away from their values is unhealthy," Dr. Casada said. "Some may turn to excessive drinking because they do not want to think about the tragedy. Drinking may block a person's sadness for a while, but it comes with a price—impaired abilities, irritability and time away from family."
In addition to feeling badly, many people may become concerned about the possibility of increased danger in their lives, as well as the fear and uncertainty of our nation's future. These feelings also are normal. In most cases, increased awareness helps people pay more attention to danger around them, but overestimating the danger could cause unnecessary anxiety.
"People could become over-anxious, causing them to avoid normal activities because they are convinced they will be in danger," Dr. Casada said. These people, he explained, will miss out on important parts of their lives. When anxiety takes over, people become so distracted by their worries that they cannot react well in a stressful or challenging moment.
Dr. Casada has published papers investigating post-traumatic stress disorder. He notes that normal reactions to tragic circumstances are a far cry from the heightened feelings of anxiety involved in post-traumatic stress.