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Terrorist Attack Triggering PTSD in Recovering People

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Published On: <DATE>          Updated On: September 17, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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Terrorist Attack Triggering PTSD in Recovering People

By Stephen F. Grinstead
September 17, 2001

Due to the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC many recovering alcoholics/addicts may be at risk for relapse because of their reaction to this tragedy. The violent images being repeated on our Nations TV screens showing the exploding airplanes and the battlefield condition of the streets shortly thereafter have a tremendous impact on everyone, but this is especially true of someone with a past history of trauma.

Most Americans, have had strong reactions to the tragic terrorist attack of September 11th.  One recovering person with many years of sobriety noticed a difference in his emotional responses.  He put it this way:  "It felt very old and very familiar. My thinking changed from being calm and focused.  I started to think about revenge.  I felt anger well up inside of me and started to to say things to myself like:  "we can't let them get away with this - nuke the bastards." 

He began having disturbing and violent nightmares, and often woke up angry and extremely upset.  He felt ashamed and didn't want to tell anyone what was going on inside my head.  He did not want to feel helpless or victimized and and his anger gave him a sense of power.

As we worked together to resolve these feelings, he began to two things:  First, his military programming developed during his years in the marine Corps had been reactivated.  Second, he was acting out some family-of-origin issues that he thought he had worked through.  Third, his PTSD from past child abuse and adult traumas had been reactivated. 

While exploring his reactions, he recognized that underneath his anger he had been experiencing a deep sense of fear and helplessness. He had learned long ago, both growing up and while in the Marine Corps, that fear was not OK and that anger and revenge were acceptable solutions.

These reactions are very common in recovering people.  Over the years I noticed that violence and frustrating events were extremely problematic for recovering people who had a history of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, especially PTSD related to military service or survivors of other severe trauma. 

Many of the rescue workers in New York City are also at high risk of an acute traumatic stress disorder, and hopefully will be receiving critical incident debriefing therapy. Some of these workers may also be in recovery and may be tempted to use alcohol or other drugs to help them cope with this living nightmare. 

I believe it is important to let people know that they do not have to go down the relapse path and become further victimized by this terrorism or to resort to acts of hostility and revenge. Recovery treatment programs and counselors need to talk with their clients about this issue and help them process their core-feelings and empower them to continue moving forward in their recovery. We need to help people move from the path of anger or fear, onto the path of creating an assertive peace-centered action plan. We need justice - not revenge!  We need to participate in finding a solution - not part of progressive problem.

About The Author:  Steve Grinstead specializes in training and consultation for addiction and coexisting personality and mental health problems. He is an author and nationally recognized expert in preventing relapse related to chronic pain disorders and is the developer of the Addiction-Free Pain Management System. He has been working with addictive disorders, relapse prevention, and addiction-free pain management for over 17 years. Steve can be reached at his private practice in Sacramento California at (916) 419-1674, by email at or through his web site

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