Trauma relief one week after the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy
By Carol Look, EFT Master
Many of the survivors who worked in the World Trade Center have been experiencing the classic cluster of symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including auditory and visual flashbacks, an exaggerated startle response, nightmares, profound restlessness and a heightened state of agitation. I would like to address the population of people experiencing a milder, scaled down version of PTSD. While their symptoms are less severe than those of people who barely escaped with their lives, they are still unbearable and deserve and require competent treatment.
Some of those New Yorkers who did not lose direct family members are experiencing deep grief as a result of being glued to the news accounts of the tragedy and from seeing hundreds of photograph posters of the missing that make the loss of complete strangers all the more personal. They are also grieving the symbol of downtown, the buildings that represented the commerce of the country. They can’t get away from the constant sound of sirens, day and night, the smell of smoke and destruction, and the look of terror on neighbors’ faces. Friends and clients are unsettled in the present, afraid of the future and “unhinged” by last week’s attack.
The most prevalent emotional symptoms for people suffering in this second tier of PTSD include feelings of guilt, helplessness and anxiety. In addition, I have observed signs of distraction (people staring at you but not hearing what you are saying), emotional numbness (shock), mild disorientation (getting into the shower with socks or glasses on), irritability (picking fights with loved ones), losing orientation to time and space (missing important meetings/ bumping into things), and being dissociated from feelings and events. Strong feelings of “survivor’s guilt” are preventing individuals from validating or expressing their feelings, and a strong sense of feeling unsafe is preventing people from making wise, centered decisions in their daily lives. These emotional states and their oppressive consequences can be efficiently handled with EFT.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE TRAUMATIZED THERAPIST
It is not just weekly clients who feel disoriented, exhausted, frustrated and traumatized. Therapists are, of course, among those New Yorkers who need help. Hundreds of mental health workers have lost patients and loved ones or witnessed the devastation directly, yet expect themselves to be ready and emotionally available to comfort others. Numerous colleagues have been telling me that they feel as if they went back to work too early.
Many described feeling stunned and unprepared for hearing the horror stories and fears of their clients, one after another, all day long. One social worker said she was overwhelmed by her patients’ actual experiences. Several of her clients had waited until feeling surrounded by the safety of their therapist’s office to tell every last detail of the catastrophe.
Still other colleagues said they were under the impression that they were coping well and processing what had happened until stories of unprecedented devastation were recounted in their offices. Colleagues are telling me they are going to work without their appointment books, double booking their sessions, making poor logistical decisions, failing to carry out routine chores, feeling empty, lonely, helpless and afraid. One therapist told me she felt useless as a professional and was “leaking” her own emotions all over the place.
As mental health professionals, we must be able to take care of ourselves in order to offer comfort and care to others. When I volunteered at the Armory for the families who were directed there to report missing loved ones, numerous mental health workers appeared nearly as traumatized and disoriented as the family members. Some social workers were so eager to “help” that they were emotionally intrusive and missed important clues from the distressed families.
Some of the most effective EFT practitioners I know “forgot” to seek help or treat themselves and only compounded their feelings of distress by volunteering too long or going back to work too soon. A seasoned clinician told me he feared he had added to the emotional damage of his clients by being too distraught himself to be present.
Below are some useful setup phrases for overwhelmed therapists:
“Even though I don’t want to hear about it anymore…”
“Even though my clients’ fears scare me…and I feel overwhelmed…”
“Even though I shouldn’t want to protect myself from the stories…”
“Even though I should be doing more…helping more” (“I am enough…I do enough…”)
“Even though I resent their neediness when I have my own needs…”
“Even though I’m mad at her for telling me the gruesome details…” (“I wish I hadn’t heard that story…”)
“Even though I want to be taken care of instead of taking care of them…”
“Even though I feel guilty…I should be able to handle this…”
“Even though I’m afraid of the hatred I’m hearing about…I choose love…”
“Even though I wasn’t afraid of the future until they reminded me to be…”
“Even though I feel helpless and powerless…I want to feel safe…”
“Even though I can’t stop seeing the images in my head…”
TREATMENT FOR A CLIENT WHO ESCAPED
I wanted to share a portion of the treatment process I used with a client who felt guilty and unsafe as a result of last week’s devastation:
This morning I worked with “Jen” who had been attending a meeting in a building directly across the street from the World Trade Center when the attack occurred. She escaped through a southern entrance of the building, was covered in soot, and crawled under a fence with other employees to safety at the tip of the island. Jen has a sketchy memory of the morning, and told me she was in “survivor mode” all day, blocking her feelings of fear and vulnerability. It was quite evident she had been traumatized.
First we tapped for….
“Even though I still feel jittery, and scared of the future…”
“Even though I don’t feel safe in New York anymore…” and
“Even though I can’t believe I went through that incident…”
“Even though I feel threatened…I can and do take care of myself…”
At various treatment spots I alternated “I feel safe now” with “I’m not safe” until Jen calmed down. (Please note that using the technique, “Tell Me The Story” is also very helpful. The client is already tuned in, and just narrates what happened (“and then…and then…and then…”) while they tap on themselves or you tap on them).
We then turned to Jen’s feelings of guilt. She described herself as “fine” and not nearly as traumatized as other people who lost their loved ones. She felt guilty about receiving attention and help. She said she felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, even aware that I, her therapist, must be going through trauma. Jen also felt wracked with guilt because she had burst into hysterical giggles and laughter Friday evening. She felt totally out of balance, although she enjoyed and needed the release. With EFT, Jen was able to reframe her outburst as a natural release of intense emotion, rather than humor that she feared offended others.
“Even though I shouldn’t have been laughing…”
“Even though I feel guilty for being upset…when I wasn’t hurt as much as others…”
“Even though I shouldn’t get the attention…others deserve it more than I…”
“Even though I feel guilty getting on with my life…I choose to take care of my needs…”
“Even though I feel guilty for not doing more…for wanting to change the subject…”
These rounds produced a deeper awareness of guilt and physical feelings in her chest and throat which needed attention.
“Even though I have this heaviness in my chest…the dust and the screams…”
“Even though I have this anxiety in my throat…I’m afraid to stay in New York…”
“Even though the future is so uncertain…and I’m afraid of what is going to happen…”
“Even though I’m afraid I’m in denial…” (People kept telling her she was in denial and would fall apart in the near future)
Jen described feeling deeply conflicted between 2 sets of experiences and feelings:
1) feelings of shock/terror when in her downtown home where she compulsively watched the news around the clock, and
2) feelings of relief she felt when working uptown in Manhattan where she found people seemingly oblivious to it all—with an absence of reminders such as candlelight vigils or hospitals teaming with families and people in crisis. She wasn’t sure which emotional state was “right” or appropriate.
“Even though I don’t know where I fit in…nothing feels stable any more…”
“Even though I feel guilty for wanting to run away…”
“Even though I don’t want to burden other people with my fears…”
“Even though I don’t know how to react…I choose to love and accept myself anyway.”
“Even though I need a break from it all…I accept all of me…”
We kept tapping until Jen regained the confidence in her own ability to handle what she had experienced.
Many thanks to all of you who contacted me to see if I was safe and sound. Your calls and emails were the perfect antidote to the devastation here. They encouraged me to keep repeating, “I’m okay, I’m safe” and continue to be enormously comforting.