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High Alert For Terrorism Can Cause Stress-induced Problems

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Published On: <DATE>          Updated On: December 23, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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High Alert For Terrorism Can Cause Stress-induced Problems

The government keeps reminding the American people that we are at continual threat of new terrorist attacks.  The news bombards the public with continual reporting of the potential biological, chemical, and nuclear threats.  Many people are responding with chronic hyper vigilance which raises their normal stress levels and can lead to burn out and eventually to stress related physical and mental health problems.  Many people are turning to doctors for prescription medications to deal with their chronically high stress.  Many people are also self-medicating the stress with alcohol and illicit recreational drugs.  Here's an article from the Associated Press (AP) from December 5, 2001, nearly three months after the terrorist attacks of September 11 which provides definite indicators of upcoming problems.

Terence T. Gorski
December 22, 2001

Terrorist High Alert May Become Routine

By NANCY BENAC
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - They can't keep it up forever. 

Three months into the nation's fight against terrorism, the long workdays and calls for extra vigilance just keep coming for many public safety and government workers. 

``It's very hard to keep your edge, and we're asking them to keep their edge all the time,'' said Dr. Philip Bonifacio, a New York psychologist who has counseled a number of police officers since the Sept. 11 attacks. ``It wears them out.'' 

Throughout the government the demands are being felt, from overworked border patrol agents to FBI investigators and CIA analysts urgently hunting the critical clue that might avert the next terror attack. 

Capitol police officers who have been working 12-hour days and six-day weeks for months are finally getting reinforcement from National Guard troops: 12-hour shifts will continue, but at least some two-day weekends should become available. 

At the CIA, cafeteria service has been extended into the dinner hour for those working late into the night. 

``This is really our first experience with a kind of consistent, looming domestic threat,'' said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union. ``In other parts of the world, people have lived under this high state of alert for decades.'' 

When the government this week issued its third nationwide alert in as many months for possible terror attacks, it was the latest sign that high anxiety is becoming something of the status quo for many workers. 

``People get better at handling these things,'' said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. ``It's almost entering the realm of the routine.'' 

Still, Farley warned, ``You can't stay on totally high alert forever. People just can't take it. The level of stress and the level of focus is so high that there will be consequences - physical and psychological.'' 

Experts says the consequences can include difficulty concentrating, errors on the job, sickness, alcoholism, irritability and problems at home. 

They also say the nation's strong support for the fight against terrorism can go a long way toward helping workers maintain their intensity and vigilance. 

``You can get up for another battle, as it were, and go on again because you feel what you're doing is appreciated and important,'' said Farley.

 The alerts help too, said Maj. Sharon Gaines of the airport police at Lambert Airport in St. Louis. 

`Everybody, no matter what job you're in, gets complacent,'' Gaines said. ``These reinforcements, whether they come from us or the national government, help keep us focused.'' 

In Franklin, N.H., a town of 8,500, Police Chief Nelson Forest said his officers remained vigilant, while the public was showing signs of relaxing. He noted that local malls have been packed with shoppers. 

``In New York City, people are probably looking over their shoulder because they were the target,'' Forest said. ``But I firmly believe any place in the United States is a target, and we have to be cautious - not paranoid - but cautious.'' 

Many people who work in demanding jobs like the CIA or FBI or local police forces are thrill-seeking personality types who can cope best with high pressure. 

``We certainly seek people here who thrive on an intense working atmosphere to start with and rise to the occasion when the mission calls for it,'' said CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. ``So a situation like this doesn't take much to motivate people to put in extra effort because the stakes are very clear.'' 

People with the right temperament can ``really sustain for a very long period of time - sort of like camels,'' said Dr. Gerald Metalsky, associate professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. 

The emergency manager for Kansas City, Mo., Mike Karl, said the city has been on alert since Sept. 11 and will stay that way until the threat of a terrorist attack subsides. 

``I don't see that happening for years,'' Karl said. 

For some of those who suffered big losses on Sept. 11, such as firefighters, putting in long hours can be almost therapeutic. 

``Their ability to work saves them from greater anguish,'' said Dr. Warren Spielberg, a clinical psychologist at the New School University in New York, who has been doing volunteer work with firefighters since the attacks. ``You still feel productive.'' 

On the Net: Homeland Security director Tom Ridge's latest statement on state of alert: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/12/20011203-5.html 

Homeland Security Office: http://www.whitehouse.gov/homeland/ 

AP-NY-12-05-01 0244EST

 

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