As America responds as a nation to the calamity in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, its people will also be searching to compose their own personal responses to something they can barely comprehend.

For anyone with loved ones directly involved in the tragedy, grief will obviously be part of the process. For others, including Californians on the other side of the country, reactions already range from shock, denial and disbelief to outrage and anger. And how people experience and express those emotions depends upon their degree of involvement, distance and their own personal circumstances.

“People will find their variety of ways to cope,” Fremont clinical psychologist Bob Montalvo says, “and this is a critical time to give ourselves room to have feelings that will go all over the map.”

When Dean Given, president of the California Psychological Association, heard the news, his first thought was of his son in Washington, D.C. His concerns then broadened to family and friends, then the family and friends of co-workers.

“It continues to broaden now,” he says. “None of us will be unaffected by the scope of this disaster and we know that.”

Sometimes, he cautioned, people feel anxiety simply from “the guilt of their own reactions,” Given adds.

“Some will look with morbid curiosity or excitement, and believe that says they are terrible people, when indeed those are all among the human responses to a disaster of this magnitude.”

Most Americans have not experienced this kind of catastrophe, and on Tuesday, eyewitnesses and secondhand spectators alike described the event as if it were a movie.

“It remind(ed) me of a number of films I’ve seen,” Montalvo said of the video footage of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center.

Using the cinema metaphor gives people a ready set of terms to describe the unimaginable, psychologists say. It also reinforces the sense of surrealism, and therefore staves off the full impact.

“It serves as a buffer, as a protection from the absolute horror,” Montalvo explains. “For a human being to process that, we have to strip away the Hollywood and the theater.”

Ironically, such desensitization can be useful, and helps to “de-escalate the physical response.

“(People) can walk instead of run,” he explains. “They’ll become aware of what they need to do.”

Montalvo, who has worked in disaster response, says usually a community goes through several phases after a disaster.

The first is the heroic phase, in which people help each other out. That’s followed by a honeymoon period, which is characterized by organized relief efforts and a glowing sense of accomplishment, and which lasts anywhere from two weeks to two months.

The next phase is disillusionment over lack of progress. The final stage is reconstruction, an indefinite period, during which communities rebuild.

For individuals, “the sets of reaction will come in waves, and the timing of the waves is unpredictable,” says Daniel Weiss, a professor at UC San Francisco who specializes in medical psychology, especially in the area of post-traumatic stress disorder

For example, one person might have a bad dream tonight, while another will have a bad dream in a week, Weiss explains.

“You can’t know ahead of time how you will react, and you can’t know ahead of time what will turn out to be emotionally moving to you.”

The terrorism will likely exacerbate emotions already provoked by personal circumstances. For instance, someone nursing a sick loved one might feel a loss of control and that nothing is safe, while another feeling angry over his workplace situation might react in terms of retaliation and vengeance.

The attempt to regain what Weiss calls “psychological balance” might take weeks to a couple of months, barring any personal involvement or further events.

“That’s a perfectly understandable time frame for reaction and recovery.”

Vera H-C Chan can be reached at or 925-977-8428.