The Aftermath of Terrorism: How Exposure Affects Alcohol Consumption and Posttraumatic Stress

When a terrorist attack occurs, such as the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there are many victims apart from those killed or injured in the attack. Many people who experience the effects of exposure to the attack and interpersonal loss can experience posttraumatic stress. A recent study examined the effects of terrorist attacks on those experiencing the effects of exposure on posttraumatic stress and alcohol consumption. Hasin, Keyes, Hatzenbuehler, Aharaonovich, and Alderson completed a study in 2006 that examined these factors following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. At baseline, and at 1- and 10-year follow-ups, a sample of adult drinkers was evaluated who lived approximately 12 miles from the World Trade Center. The participants were evaluated for alcohol dependence and major depression. Of the same group, 82.2 percent were evaluated after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. They were assessed for proximity to the World Trade Center, interpersonal loss, posttraumatic stress and alcohol consumption. The main findings of the study showed that alcohol consumption and posttraumatic stress were predicted by the exposure to the September 11 attacks. One important finding of the study was the previous alcohol dependence was not a critical determinant in whether the participant drank after September 11. Physical proximity to the World Trade Center predicted drinking even after adjustments were made for previous drinking habits. Another important result of the study was that alcohol consumption tended to be associated with physical proximity to the attack, while increased posttraumatic symptoms were associated with interpersonal loss. The findings indicated that drinking may be a response to perception of physical threat rather than loss. Several limitations affected the results of this study. For instance, participants younger than 18 years of age were not considered for the baseline group, so the youngest participants evaluated after September 11 were 27 years of age. In addition, self-report was relied upon for evaluating the participants’ responses to the attacks. Future studies may need to examine the difference in the areas of the brain affected by the threat of physical attack versus the trauma of interpersonal loss. With additional understanding of the causes of these responses to terrorist attacks, there could be a more effective strategy for prevention and intervention of the effects. Unfortunately, terrorist attacks have the potential to touch many lives. The emergence of global news reporting and live news coverage have ensured that it is possible for increasing numbers of people to perceive themselves to be in close proximity of attacks.

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