December 20, 2001

Campus Healing and Recovery

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You, your family, friends, peers, educators, acquaintances, and the entire United States, have experienced a traumatic event. The country is reeling from the effects of Sept. 11. The nation is wading through reports of anthrax, suspicions of future terrorist acts and a war.

Yet people on campus are talking, gathering with others, reaching out, donating blood, contributing money, increasing feelings of personal security, attending help sessions and doing anything else they can do to heal.

Healing is the act of restoring a person to spiritual wholeness, according to With all that is happening, the healing process has been difficult.

“The magnitude of Sept. 11 was beyond what anyone could imagine,” said Tanni Hall, associate dean of students.

“Trauma by definition changes the way you view the world,” said Lynn Gerstein, counselor trainer at Gannett: University Health Services. “You have to reorganize how you view the world, you have to grieve and you have to learn how to cope in your new existence.”

Gerstein acknowledges that for some people the event was not a trauma, and they must be addressed differently. At Gannett, however, trauma victims and grief victims are handled differently. Gannett has chosen the trauma healing approach over the grief healing approach for people dealing with Sept. 11.

People may respond to the feelings brought on by Sept. 11 by exhibiting stress. Some common physical stress reactions are nausea, upset stomach, chills, rapid heartbeat and sleep disturbances, according to the Gannett Website.

Common mental reactions are seeing the event repeatedly, having difficulty making decisions, disorientation, poor concentration and memory problems, according to the Website. Emotional responses may include such symptoms as anxiety, fear, guilt, depression and irritability, as also stated on the website.

Some of these reactions are indicators of a post-traumatic stress disorder. The instances of post-traumatic stress disorder related to Sept. 11 are currently unknown, because it may take weeks or even years to develop the disorder, according to the November 2001 issue of SELF Magazine.

It is the fusion of intense emotion and the memory of a trauma that can bring stressful memories and feelings back to an individual, according to The New York Times article. For example, the image of the collapsing World Trade Center that was broadcast repeatedly on and after Sept. 11, large biohazard symbols adorning the front pages of the newspapers, even returning to work on Wall Street and seeing the destruction in person, can cause anxiety.

Trauma cues differ between people; some triggers may be universal such as witnessing the towers fall, and others may be more personal, triggering a traumatic event that happened to the person in the past.

“Memory of the emotions of a trauma does not decay, it remains fresh. Once you have the feeling of danger, it takes very little new threat to sustain it,” writes Prof. James Garbarino, human development, in his pamphlet entitled, “Our Children Learn Three Dark Secrets From The Disaster of Sept. 11.” The pamphlet is based on his book co-authored by Claire Bedard, research specialist of the Family Life Development Center, Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child’s Life (The Free Press, 2001).

Health experts at Gannett suggest ways to reduce stress are to talk to and spend time with people who care about you, let nightmares or flashbacks recede with time rather than fight them, maintain a normal schedule and call a counselor if the situation is too difficult to handle on your own.

If you notice someone dealing with what appears to be stress or a traumatic reaction, it is important to listen carefully to them, spend time with them and avoid telling them “things could be worse,” according to the Gannett Website. Instead, it is important that these people receive help and support.

Focusing on taking positive action and on those who took positive action such as fire fighters, police officers, blood donators and others will provide comfort, according to Garbarino.

“Compassion and understanding are founded in strength, not weakness. Let us celebrate those who speak and act for justice and due process rather than for blood revenge,” Garbarino writes in his pamphlet entitled “Our Response to the Attack on America: What Can It Teach Children About Understanding and Revenge.”

Garbarino’s advice to parents is to spend time with children and reassure them that their loved ones are safe. He recommends taking time out from personal worries to do reassuring activities with children. This advice is applicable not only to parents with children, but also to everyone who knows someone who is suffering. Empathizing with friends, Garbarino suggests, is the easy part. The next step is to understand “how violence and rage arise in human beings.”

“If we are to do more than continue to escalate the cycle of violence we must do more than feel outrage and practice more than retaliation. We must seek a deeper understanding of individual terrorists and of the causes they represent. We must not fear this understanding and compassion in the face of hate and fanaticism,” Garbarino writes.

Perhaps this is the next step in healing. Once people understand their own feelings towards Sept. 11, they can try to internalize the motivations of those who created the atrocity, according to Garbarino. If what comes next is going to be even harder, Cornellians have to do what they do best, according to Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations at Gannett Health Center. Cornellians have to educate each other and themselves.

Counseling services at Cornell include Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service (EARS): 255-EARS, or the Counseling and Psychological Services division at Gannett: 255-5208 for students and, for faculty and staff, the Employee Assistance Program: 255-1531. Getting adequate exercise, sleep and nutrition are also helpful in alleviating anxiety, according to Gannett’s Website.

Archived article by Rachel Einschlag