Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Does Tragedy Bring Us Together?

September 9, 2002

Where were you on September 11 of last year? How has this event affected you? What did we learn about personal and collective coping with trauma following the terrorist attacks on that day?

I was in between appointments and heard the riveting news in the secretary’s office. I started an appointment with a man who was in the throes of a painful depression following his retirement. He and I listened to the radio in my office for a half hour before refocusing on his life. It was a shared bond and an indelible moment in time that we experienced together.

On Friday of that week, I gave a presentation to a faculty group at North Dakota State University. After some brief opening remarks, each of the 30 or so people present shared personal reflections on the tragedy.

We embraced each other’s common humanity as we attempted to put into words what this event meant and the emotions it tapped. Especially touching were the thoughts of the people who were from other countries - Africa, the Mid-east, and Australia - and with various religious backgrounds. That was a cherished memory we shared together.

What does psychological research tell us the impact of 9/11? Much has been written on how we came together as a country and the positive impact the tragedy had on our rallying around our loved ones, assisting the survivors and their families, and affirming our patriotic values.

This was highlighted by two presentations at the recent convention of the American Psychology Association.

The shift to communal coping. Jamie Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, found that his research subjects carrying digital tape recorders talked and thought a lot about the tragedy from 3 to 10 days after the event. Then the talking tailed off while their thoughts were still active for another two weeks. Within a month, things were pretty much back to normal.

People sought out their close friendships, partners, and family members, spent more time with them, talked more and laughed more. Their use of pronouns changed their frame of reference from the first person singular "I’, "me", and "mine" - to first person plural - "we," "us,"and "our."

Pennebaker also analyzed and contrasted journal entries from people who had 10 entries both before and after September 11 on livejournal.com. Like the previous study, these people showed a similar pattern of processing the events of 9/11 for about a month. They also increased their use of collective pronouns - "we," "us," and "our" - in expressing belonging and positive emotions.

Pennebaker feels there is a "silver lining" effect of tragedy. There were positive effects for closer connections, changing perspectives, emotional coping and physical health. He also found that people paced themselves to be ready to talk and write about traumatic events. They did need an encouraging social network so they could talk about the tragedy in an accepting, receptive way. Talking and writing helped except in those cases where the story of their loss became repetitive and no longer was active in searching for deeper meaning.

Pennebaker believes that most of us survive and even thrive in the aftermath of trauma. Except for a minority who are terribly affected, most of us have the natural thinking, expressive and social resources to thrive. He concludes that the natural processes of coping that underlie broad scale trauma recovery are not fully understood and appreciated

A tragedy develops positive strengths. Psychologists Christopher Peterson, University of Michigan, and Martin Seligman, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, reported on an online Values in Action survey that was completed by 4,817 respondents before 9/11, and two and 10 months after 9/11. The survey described and classified 24 positive traits or values in the United States today.

Seventy-two percent were female; 85 percent white, 37 percent married or living as married; 10 percent divorced or separated; and 1percent widowed. 700 non-whites participated in the survey. Respondents represented all ages and a variety of occupations and political ideologies.

The typical respondent was 35 years old and had completed several years of college. Eighty-one percent were from English speaking countries. A sample of 173 people were from countries other than the Untied States.

The results showed an increase in gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork after 9/11. After 10 months these characteristics were still elevated though to a somewhat lesser degree. In the aftermath of 9/11, people turned to others and enhanced their sense of belonging in ways that could be self-perpetuating and habitual. The scores of the non-US individuals obtained after 9/11 were comparable to scores before 9/11.

The road to resilience. The American Psychological Association has produced a brochure called "The Road to Resilience." The brochure highlights 10 ways to build resilience: 1) make connections; 2) avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems; 3) accept that change is a part of living; 4) move toward your goals; 5) take decisive actions; 6) look for opportunities for self-discovery; 7) nurture a positive view of yourself; 8) keep things in perspective; 9) maintain a hopeful outlook; and 10) take care of yourself. To obtain a copy of the copy of this brochure call 1-800-964-2000 or go to helping.apa.org on the Internet.