Lessons Learned from EAP Responses to Terrorism

By Robert Intveld, LCSW, CEAP

I usually hesitate to write a “lessons learned” article. While there is obvious value in explaining useful strategies to one’s peers, the question then becomes, “What are you adding these methods to?” In the case of critical incident response (CIR), how we collectively advance our practice depends on which CIR foundation your EAP currently uses. This article promotes the Multi-Systemic Resiliency Approach (MSRA).
Acts of terrorism get everyone’s attention. Even if you did not know what the incident was about or where it occurred, the media will make sure that you do. Terrorism against the United States is felt by all of us. Incidents are not limited to the US either, as witnessed last year in Paris, France. The truth is we are all survivors. We may not be in the proximity of the incident where the impact is felt the greatest, but we can experience a strong reaction nonetheless. This brings us to the first lesson.

Lesson #1- Your response team is likely to have their own unique reaction to stress. Make sure they are as safe as possible before they are called in. Be sure they are connected and supported. Ensure that they are making decisions from a position of safety. In other words, response to stress needs to be managed and not distressed. Make sure your team is in a clear state of mind.

Lesson #2- From the Harvard Forum on Disaster Response – A Decade of Lessons Learned Post 9/11:
“…and it’s also an important point to realize that the longest-lived aspect of a disaster, what lingers in memory decades later, for any disaster-affected community, is did the outside world come in to help.”
- Jennifer Leaning, MD, Assoc. Professor of Medicine, Harvard University

Research on survivor populations supports Dr. Leaning’s comment. Survivors report that resilience stems from the perception of resources that add to the coping process in a post-trauma recovery environment (Wilson 1995). In other words, when there is a blanket of support around an affected community, a message of care and support resonates. An EAP response that deploys counselors on-site contributes to this perception regardless of whether a specific person chooses to use the services.

Lesson #3- Your team may need support to foster their resilience through the critical incident. If you have received training in MSRA, you are familiar with the importance of employees connecting to personal attributes of strength. When a responder knows and draws from these traits, such as optimism, spirituality, and perseverance, among others, not only will these areas serve as a role model for others, they will aid in sustaining the team throughout their response role and afterwards. EAP leadership must be accessible to their staff for emotional support and operational guidance.

Lesson #4- Fortify your operational systems. The immediate intensity and the length of time it will likely take to cope with the critical incident will tax your EAP’s systems and the staff members operating them. While the incident may call many people to the front line, you will continue to receive calls seeking help for issues unrelated to the terrorist act. You will need to maintain a sufficient staff for routine operations.

Lesson #5- If you use a network of affiliate providers for critical incident response, secure their services early. Many providers are on multiple EAP lists and third-party vendors. They will be in high demand. Volunteers are plentiful. Have a vetting process in place before you incorporate them into your services. Balance provider continuity with the need to rotate providers for their own wellness.

Lesson #6- Expect a high degree of anger to be present when assisting individuals affected by a terrorist or other critical incident. Reconciling the unjust randomness of terrorism with how one’s life is impacted can be met with intense anger and resentment. These feelings may become externalized (Giner-Sorolla, 2013).

Lesson #7- Establishing a “new normal” is often cited as a necessary task to move forward after the incident. But this idea can be met with resistance and defiance, especially early on when a level of shock and denial still exists. “New normal” is a personal journey involving acceptance and integration. It is a process that requires patience and cannot be forced on someone.

Lesson #8- Studies show that substance use increases after critical incidents (Greiger 2006, Vlahov 2004). Be sure to include this fact in your educational material on coping skills.

Lessons Learned from Abroad
While terrorist incidents in the U.S. tend to dominate the news, the fact is that other countries, including Ireland and Israel, have also had their fair share of terrorist acts.
During the second Intifada in Israel (2000-2004), acts and threats of terrorism were a daily occurrence. The goal was to demoralize the targeted society and induce a widespread sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair (Waxman 2011). (Editor’s note: Intifada is a key concept in contemporary Arabic usage referring to what is perceived as a legitimate uprising against oppression. In the Palestinian context, the word refers to attempts to “shake off” the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories in the first and second “rebellions” i.e., Intifadas.)
The terrorist acts were designed to turn the Israelis against current government policies and political leaders. While changes were made to increase personal safety, the Israeli people demonstrated resolve and steadfastness, despite the relentless threats (Becker, Rubenstein 2011). It does not mean they lived with an absence of fear, but instead of panic and public hysteria, there was stoicism and fortitude (Waxman 2011).
Likewise, in Northern Ireland, where 80 terrorist attacks occurred between 1969 -2001, Andrew Silke, head of Criminology and Director of Terrorism Studies at the University of East London, noted in his article, “The Psychological Impact of the Continued Terrorist Threat,” that even at the height of terrorism designed to psychologically cripple the population, remarkable resilience was displayed.
Silke identified the concept of Mortality Salience, in which our fear of death can lead to identification and pride with one’s country, community, ideology, religion, or race. We connect as a means of avoiding the vulnerabilities of death that terrorism attempts to exploit, while increasing our hostility toward our perceived enemies.
It is encouraging to recognize that communities actually strengthen and become more unified during these disturbing times. In Israel, citizens are able to live happily despite ongoing threats. Researchers attribute this to acclimatization to chronic terrorism (Kirschenbaum, 2005). In other words, they simply get used to it.
In America, media coverage decreases where chronic terrorism exists. Since exposure to terrorist attacks has been shown to generate symptoms of anxiety and distress, paying less attention to terrorism helps the society to become less affected by it (Sloan 2000, Schuster 2001, McNaughton-Casill 2009).  

Media’s Role in Terrorism and Psychological Impact
Margaret Thatcher stated that, “Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism,” (Wilkinson 1997). This is not a new lesson, but one that is becoming more apparent in today’s attacks. According to Silke, the media has a destabilizing effect on people by suggesting attacks are more likely and the impact more dangerous than they actually are. He cites the 9/11 study published in 2002 by the New England Journal of Medicine, which described how proximity to the Twin Towers was linked with higher reported symptoms of PTSD.  The findings also emphasized that secondary trauma, the negative symptoms of PTSD and depression through an indirect source (media), was also experienced by people who were not in the vicinity of the attack but received all their information through the media.  

More Lessons Learned
Lesson #9- Members of the media are also experiencing stressful responses stemming from today’s terrorist acts and other critical incidents. Get the facts from news briefings led by trained leadership on- site. Avoid the amped up commentary, so-called expert opinions, conjecture, victim stories, grandstanding, and political posturing. This is what the terrorists rely on to spread their message. While we cannot control the media, we can offer alternate information to increase safety and resilience.

Lesson # 10- Since connecting employees to organizational leaders is a source of resilience, empower leaders to craft messages that include safety and wellness. Such connectedness is important since Americans have not experienced as much terrorism as abroad. However, in the absence of frequency and acclimation, the impact is then felt with great intensity, and the media coverage is more charged.

Lesson #11- The reach of terrorism goes well beyond the directly impacted area. While the intensity is concentrated locally, EA professionals need to be ready to respond in a variety of ways in other locations.

Lesson #12- EAP leaders should sit down with their staff and discuss what they would do if a terrorist incident took place where they live.

We are all survivors of terrorism. The messages from terrorists are designed to reach all of us, and through the media, they do just that. Nonetheless, no matter what type of incident we endure, resilience has proven to be the most prevalent outcome (Bonanno 2004, Seligman 2011, Carver 1998). The sense of community that builds in the aftermath of an act of terror is remarkable. The desire to connect and restore safety is a powerful force.
Encourage employees to follow this lead and be involved, not isolated. Business leaders should participate in local efforts to restore normal activities where they live. This renewed surge in a sense of community does not last forever, but it will aid in moving affected individuals from seeing themselves as victims, to a healthier view of survivors – which is an important transformation.  
Operationally speaking, EAPs can influence, foster, and participate in creating resilient outcomes, but when specialized training is absent, they may actually impede this process. There are many natural processes in action as individuals rebound. Do not get in the way of these helpful choices.

Robert Intveld is the author of “EAP Critical Incident Response- A Multi-Systemic Resiliency Approach,” “The Strength Within an EAP RALLI Support System,” and the new training, “EAP Response to Terrorism,” www.eap-rda.com. Anecdotal information for this article was collected from Robert’s responses to such events as the Oklahoma City bombing, Gabby Giffords’ shooting in Tucson, AZ, World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2001, crash of Egypt Air Flight 990, Gulf oil spill, and the Newtown, CT, shooting.


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Silke, A. “The Psychological Impact of the Continued Terrorist Threat” posted on American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Retrieved from www.aaets.org/article216.htm.

Wilkinson, P., (1997). “The Media and Terrorism: A Reassessment”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 51–64.

Waxman, D., (2011). “Living with Terror, Not in Terror:  The Impact of Chronic Terrorism on Israeli Society”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 5 No. 5-6.