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"Marker events" leave scars whether visible or not, psychologist explains


Last updated 10/4/2021 at 10:44am

Provided by Dr. Judy Kuriansky

Dr. Judy with Cardinal Timothy Dolan at the ceremony of the New York Fire Department for firefighters lost at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11

Marker events-especially the scary ones like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 9-11 and Hurricane Ida-always leave some form of an emotional scar, even in those who weren't physically present for the trauma, according to clinical psychologist, media personality and humanitarian Judy Kuriansky.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the Florida condo collapse and the terrifying fall of Afghanistan during the U.S. military withdrawal all can be added to list of time-marking incidents, said Kuriansky, who is also known as "Dr. Judy" and serves as a United Nations NGO representative.

"The trauma is experienced like a pebble thrown into a pond," she said. "The people most affected are the ones directly in the line of fire. Then it just emanates outward in concentric circles because we are all interconnected."

An author and professor at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, Kuriansky served as a grief counselor at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, where she helped treat the psychological and physical devastation endured by first responders, military personnel, cleanup workers and victims' families.

But the 20-year anniversary of that horrific event also confirmed that even two decades could not remove its emotional toll any more than physical distance could prevent its impact-which holds true for any incident so powerful that people always remember where they were when it happened, she said.

Kuriansky has witnessed the same phenomenon during and after providing grief care in the wake of school shootings, epidemics and natural disasters around the world.

"These marker events are personal, but they can also be collective," she explained. "Even those with no personal connection can be impacted by any event that reaches global consciousness. That's all it takes to trigger something in your personal experience."

Anniversaries of such events can serve as markers, too, as was seen in the breadth and poignancy of observations leading up to, and commemorated on, Sept. 11, 2021 - the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

"There is no person of any religion or ethnicity or background who hasn't had some trauma in their lives that made them feel wronged or hurt or abused or attacked-and this 9/11 anniversary triggers that feeling."

While there are positive marker events, such as weddings and the birth of children, the effect of negative incidents must be monitored and often treated, she said. Otherwise, the resultant shock "will come out sideways."

"That's one of the things I am always warning people about as a psychologist-that all of this trauma can trigger you and affect your behavior, your emotions, your social interactions and your spiritual connection."

In counseling sessions after 2001, Kuriansky said she routinely encountered spouses complaining about partners becoming suddenly combative or isolated. These and other behaviors were frequently connected to the anguish directly or indirectly inflicted by 9/11.

"A wife would say, 'Why is he screaming at me now? He didn't used to yell so much,'" she recalled. "'Why is he spending so much time in the garage these days?'"

It happened a lot with children, too. "I had parents saying, 'Why is my child talking back to me so much?' Or they reported their children having nightmares or stomachaches or not wanting to go to school."

The symptoms also may occur on social levels in the form of End Times hysterias, conspiracy theories and widespread feelings of panic expressed as anger, she continued. "For many, markers are signs that we are moving toward the end of the world. Some people call it Armageddon, right? It just confirms for them that this is a frightening time."

Some individuals respond to marker events by jumping into action they believe will help themselves, their families and communities. Others will place the locus of control on faith, saying, "'I believe God will take care of it' and then just move on.'"

Individuals should look for disturbances in their emotions, thoughts, behaviors, social interactions and spiritual beliefs to determine if they are suffering from trauma related to one or more marker events.

"We need to remember that with any negative event, it is not over when the event is over. The aftermath of 9/11 is not over. The book isn't closed on that. People are still suffering."

Religious communities can help with the healing process after marker events by offering guidance from pulpits, bulletins and small-group gatherings based on age groups. "Peer sharing is absolutely important for resilience and recovery," she said. "It's absolutely critical, and every church can do that."

Kuriansky said she's leaned heavily into this process herself by meeting with others who were at Ground Zero in 2001: "What helps is going to these meetings and sharing with the people who went through the same collective experience."

Music also contributed to healing from the attacks and the recent anniversary. "It was very powerful when my music partner and I wrote the song 'Towers of Light,' which is about the two beams that shine in the sky where the Twin Towers stood."

Traveling the world to provide grief support to victims of natural disasters and terrorism also has helped, she added. Out of that she has edited a book titled Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Grassroots Peacebuilding Between Israelis and Palestinians.

"If we are going to stop all the horror of the end-of-the-world scenarios, we have to find a rapport between warring ethnicities and radicalism," Kuriansky said. And individuals also must find peace within by realizing that "our present emotions can be triggered by the past and it can define us whether we realize it or not."

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