September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States. The images of that time are seared into the minds of many (myself included as I watched on live TV as the second plane struck the World Trade Center in New York).

That afternoon, still somewhat in a state of shock, I wrote self-care recommendations for my clients, which I sent out by email. That email got forwarded many times, and I had reprint requests from across the globe. Jim Quick and Cary Cooper soon published it in their book, Stress and Strain (2nd edition). I’ll place those recommendations below along with an addition for these times.

But first, let’s flash forward to:

January 6, 2021

I now sit again in a state of shock watching the news roll in from today: January 6, 2021. Our nation is under attack again—this time from within. Armed thugs (terrorists!) egged on by President Trump, have invaded the US Capitol in an attempt to stop the next step in the proper transfer of power to President-elect Biden.

As a mental health professional, I need to be clear about what this means. This insidious attack—by Americans on our own duly elected officials—is destructive to our democracy.  It is deeply distressing and traumatizing to the mental health of many. Tomorrow and in the days to come, I will help clients who are already overwhelmed by the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis cope with this as well.

And it will be natural for some to wonder how I feel. So let me be clear: I stand against this attack on our democracy. It is delusional, destructive, and deeply harmful to our country and by extension to my dear clients.

These are dark times. But I do believe we will come through it—just as we did after 9/11. It will take courage and staying true to our guiding principles.

In the meantime, remember to care for your own mental and physical health. You help no one by getting engulfed by the trauma unfolding in our nation’s capitol. Keep your head above water and breathe!

Here’s how I encouraged my clients the afternoon of 9/11:

Ten Steps to Staying Healthy in Times of High Stress

  1. Remember to drink plenty of water and eat regular and healthy meals.

  2. Keep some physical activity in your routine.

  3. If the high-stress situation results from a tragedy, pace your exposure to media accounts or conversations about it. Plan how much time you need to watch, listen, or read about the tragedy before taking a break.

  4. Breathe. Deep breathing and relaxation practice are valuable ways to inoculate yourself against strain, especially during high-stress periods.

  5. If loss or tragedy causes the high stress, expect to go through a grieving process. Feelings will likely include rage, deep sadness, fear for safety, maybe even “survivor’s guilt.” Know that this is a natural process.

  6. It’s a good idea to write down your deepest thoughts and feelings about highly stressful and/or traumatic events. Doing this for as little as 15 to 20 minutes will allow your emotions to settle and will facilitate healing.

  7. Take extra care to drive defensively and stay especially focused in the moment as you drive. If the high-stress situation is affecting your whole community, remember that stress or fear may distract other drivers, too.

  8. Pray or meditate for others who are in the high-stress situation with you—for those whose lives have been turned upside-down, for those responding to the trauma, and for the leaders who need to make wise decisions and take action. Remember also your own physical, emotional and spiritual health in difficult times.

  9. Maintain your regular routine and healthy activities. Go about your work and life without getting stuck in a rut. Act in defiance of other people attempting to control your life by continuing to truly live.

  10. Watch for ways in which your mind or body shows the tension it is experiencing as a result of the high stress. If appropriate, do not hesitate to call for professional help and guidance from a licensed or accredited healthcare specialist.

  11. (Added in 2021) Treat yourself with kindness—just as you would a dear friend. Bring the same warmth, compassion, and caring to your own self that you would give to a friend who is in distress.