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Reactions to Disaster

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 30, 2001 -- Whether it's urban myth or not, people are talking about 'terror sex.' They claim that New Yorkers turned to that consummate life-affirming activity -- sex -- after the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet, others are saying quite the opposite. That people have been suffering from depression and lack of libido in recent weeks. Both are natural reactions to stress, counselors say.

"What we're dealing with now is kind of an Armageddon mentality, when a lot of social norms and prohibitions break down," says Donald Rosenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and at a Veteran's Administration Hospital in Brooklyn. He's worked with war veterans for 30-some years.

"When soldiers are involved in a combat situation, they do things they wouldn't ordinarily dream of doing in peacetime," he tells WebMD. "Terror and fear breaks down inhibitions, at least in those who had problems with self-control to begin with."

The same pattern was evident following Southern California's earthquake, says Gail Wyatt, PhD, a sex researcher, sex therapist, and professor of psychiatry at UCLA. She studies risk-taking in sexual behavior.

"People found sex to be soothing to their fears and insecurities, their need to be connected to someone," Wyatt tells WebMD. "They thought about how they were wanted to go out -- feeling loved or alone." Many experiences were quite spontaneous, "talking to someone else who was lonely and vulnerable, which always leads to great sex."

Along with emotional need, physiological changes brought on by the "fight or flight" response can drive some people to seek sex during stressful times.

"We've just added another 'f' that was not in the mix before," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Washington. She is also author of Everything You Know About Love and Sex Is Wrong.

During the bombing of Britain, people made love in the London subways, Schwartz tells WebMD. "There was a birthday 'bump' in Turkey after the earthquakes."

Stressful times cause a rush of chemicals to be released in the body, including dopamine and testosterone -- the hormones of pleasure and aggression, Schwartz tells WebMD.

How you choose to use those hormones makes the difference. "If you're with a person in a bar, obviously the way the energy will be focused is different than if you're a cop on a beat," she says.

"People who are not particularly sexually aggressive may feel physiologically aroused but have a bit more courage than they ordinarily have," Schwartz tells WebMD. "Put that with an attitude [of] 'live for today because life is uncertain,' and 'let's call [the] guy you broke up with, maybe it wasn't all that important,' that kind of stuff."

All that arousal and emotional need could indeed produce an increase in sexual experiences -- not to mention births and sexually-transmitted diseases -- because a lot of that sex is spontaneous. "Like other unplanned sexual activity, there's a slightly greater chance that we won't take the [precautions] we normally would," Schwartz says.

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