New surveys show that the emotional impact of last year's terrorist attacks has subsided somewhat in the United States. But Americans are not yet psychologically back to normal.
One year after terrorists crashed aircraft into the World Trade Center towers in New York and U.S. military headquarters near Washington, people still suffer vestiges of stress and fear. "They are getting over it, but slowly," said University of Michigan political scientist Michael Traugott, who has conducted three national surveys since the terrorist attacks, most recently in August.
He found that two-fifths of those most recently interviewed felt less safe now than they did before the attacks. Half said they had restless sleep, almost as many had trouble concentrating, about one-fourth felt depressed, and nearly one-fifth felt fearful most of the time.
These proportions, while still significant, are down since the month after the attacks. Most of the change occurred in the first six months. "What that means is, Americans have been able to get back to more or less normal," he said. "But there is this group that hasn't been able to recover at the same rate."
The University of Michigan surveys are supported by ones conducted by psychologists at the University of California in Irvine. The California team also sampled public opinion three times since the terrorist attacks, most recently six months ago. They report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the proportion of the U.S. population outside New York who reported continued stress in March was six percent, down from 17 percent in November. "We're still seeing symptoms of post-traumatic stress," said study leader Roxane Cohen Silver. "However, importantly, I believe what we are seeing is a normal response to an abnormal trauma. Rather than seeing these as signs of psychopathology or psychiatric disorders, I see this as a normal way in which people are responding to what was a massive national tragedy," she said.
Ms. Silver's study sheds light on why some people have recovered more slowly than others. The highest levels of self-reported stress were in women, people with a history of depression or anxiety, and those with the most exposure to the attacks.
Another group continuing to feel highly stressed is comprised of people who have stopped trying to cope. What has made matters worse for them and others is that the national emergency did not end with the attacks, but has continued with the U.S.-led war on terrorism, the bioterrorist scare last October set off by the mailing of deadly anthrax spores, and the government's efforts to prevent further terrorist acts. "When a trauma is ongoing, disengaging early is not likely to be an adaptive strategy," she said. "Actively doing something to cope with the attacks was associated with decreased distress over time. In the first couple of weeks after the attacks, that might have taken the form of donating blood, giving money, going to memorials - staying engaged in some way."
Together, both university studies show that the response to a major national trauma is not limited to those who experience it directly. Michael Traugott in Michigan says that the renewed focus around the first anniversary of the attacks is likely to rekindle anxieties and depression somewhat.