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Flight 3407 Anniversary Likely to Trigger Anxiety and Grief, Says UB Trauma Expert

Release Date: February 8, 2010

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The first anniversary of the crash of Flight 3407 may trigger many emotions, whether a person was intimately connected to the tragedy or not, says trauma expert Nancy J. Smyth.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Friday's one-year anniversary of the crash of Continental Flight 3407 will almost certainly trigger anxiety and fear among those personally affected by the tragedy. And a University at Buffalo expert on trauma and loss says those with a less-immediate, but still important connection to the tragedy can also expect a recurrence of anxiety or grief.

"The first-year anniversary after a tragedy is always difficult," says Nancy J. Smyth, dean of UB's School of Social Work and a national expert on trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. "In this situation, it's particularly difficult because certain aspects and qualities of the tragedy make it complicated.

"Safety practices were not what they should have been," says Smyth. "The deaths might have been prevented. Family members of the victims may well have been stuck in feelings of anger and helplessness. And those feelings can make the grieving process that much harder and the anniversary date that much more painful."

But the trauma, anxiety and depression surrounding the Feb. 12 anniversary date will be felt by others who somehow made a painful but meaningful connection to the crash, a tragedy that killed all 49 passengers and one person in the Clarence Center neighborhood where the plane came down. According to Smyth, these people, as well, need to prepare for what could be a reawakening of the pain and ordeal they experienced because they found something about the crash disturbingly relevant to their own lives.

"If they found something personal in this situation they connected to -- maybe they strongly related to one of the victims or they often took a flight similar to this one -- the anniversary of the crash may make them feel less safe in the world. This is much more likely if they have their own history of trauma, such as childhood abuse or growing up in a violent neighborhood," Smyth explains. "Feeling anxiety on the anniversary of this crash will probably be puzzling to them, and it might only make sense when they can figure out that this current tragedy is resonating with their own past experiences."

Smyth, who has written and lectured extensively on how people react to stress and the coping mechanisms that can make it easier to manage this anxiety, urges both groups at risk of feeling deep sorrow to "plan, expect that this will happen" as the anniversary of the crash approaches.

"Don't fight it," she says. "Dedicate some time and mental space to how you're feeling. Don't try to go through this week as if nothing happened. Recognize it and decide what you need to do to commemorate this event in your life.

"Death of a loved one is very personal. This could be a time to write a letter to the person who died. People who have done this say this can be a helpful thing to do. Or it can be a religious service, or gathering with a group of people that have gone through a similar experience.

"It's more a point of taking the time to ask yourself, 'What do I need to do?' rather than a matter of something being right or wrong."

Everyone expects the families of those killed in the crash to re-experience their sorrow and loss. But others -- whether they are the people who saw the crash in their neighborhood, or the first responders, or the volunteers who helped look for remains of the victims, or people who lived through a frightening airline experience or through other traumatic events -- these people should also expect the one-year anniversary will probably awaken painful feelings they thought had been resolved, according to Smyth.

"The most healing way to use this anniversary date is often to honor the person who died in whatever way is most useful and appropriate to that person experiencing that grief," Smyth says. "However, if you find yourself getting anxious or depressed when this anniversary comes, and it's not making any sense because you're thinking, 'I didn't live through this,' it's a good time to seek out a therapist familiar with trauma. Those therapists can quickly help you understand how this tragedy relates to your life and your experiences, and then work with you so that these feelings get resolved."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities

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anzalon@buffalo.edu