As the disaster of Katrina unfolds, Americans face other grim memories. This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
The world is full of tragedy, suffering, and despair. Yet amid it all, there is one common thread -- the resilience of the human spirit. How is it that human beings can endure so much without losing heart?
"Our human psyche has evolved to allow us to get through serious stressors in our lives," says Joseph Garbely, MD, a professor of psychiatry and internal medicine at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "We're programmed innately to persevere. It is our innate survival instinct; that beacon that unconsciously drives us all. We want to leave our mark, leave our footprint on this earth. So we keep marching on."
Mobilizing America's Spirit
With the Sept. 11 tragedy, America's collective spirit began to take shape, Garbely tells WebMD. "That took us all by storm. We were all in shock and awe by what happened. Then as we digested it all, people rushed in to help. That prepared us, now we're more on the ready. I helped out with Sept. 11, and couldn't wait to see what I could do with Katrina. These catastrophes coming so close together almost prepare us for doing the right thing."
In fact, too many volunteers have turned out to help evacuees in Philadelphia, he reports. "We haven't had the big numbers that were expected. But volunteers have been turned away, there have been so many. Because Sept. 11 is still so palpable, people are ready to pitch in."
What he's witnessed "has been dazzling," Garbely tells WebMD. "We pull each other up. We're driven to help each other, which brings us together. We may be divided on some issues, but when disaster occurs, all that goes away. Our common goal, our similarity, is to pick ourselves up, bond, put aside our differences, for the common good."
The Power of Faith
In times of distress, "faith is a motivator," says Garbely. "Faith gives people hope. Even by just showing up as a volunteer, you confer instant hope. People in crisis have no idea what they're going to do next. They just want someone to say it's going to be OK. They want a bed, they want someone to take care of their medical problems, take care of their mom. It gives people hope. That's the key ingredient that the collective spirit gives to people: hope. Not just hope in their problem, but also hope in mankind."
Faith in a higher power -- however we envision that power -- helps us believe there is order to the universe, he explains. Also, a sense of faith and spirituality prompts people to do what is morally right, says Garbely. "I think spirituality is about doing the right thing. You don't need organized religion to have that call -- although organized religion can help people get involved. If you're one person, it's maybe not so easy."
"During disasters and times of stress, God draws near," says Harold Koenig, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality, and Health at Duke University Medical Center. "You may feel it through people who care, who provide services that help you, but God comes closer to all of us."
Tangible evidence, he says, lies in the faith community's response to disasters. "There are 400,000 congregations in the U.S., and all of them take up collections for these disasters. Also, every religion has a special group designed to respond to disasters. I'm not just talking about the Salvation Army, but the Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, every organized religion mobilizes immediately when disaster occurs.
"Love thy neighbor" is at the heart, explains Koenig. "The trauma and suffering does and should weigh on the rest of us. If we have any kind of feeling for our fellow man at all, the way to deal with it is to do something to help, whether it's donating money or other resources. That feeling is there for a reason, and we shouldn't suppress it. We should do something about it. No man is an island. We're all connected to each other."
When New York firefighters arrived in New Orleans to help, they exemplified love in action, he says. "It's a combination of personality, compassion, a human impulse to empathize with others. They want to give back because other people helped them out when they were in trouble."
Many Paths to Recovery
For those at the heart of disaster, there will be struggles, says Eva C. Ritvo, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Miami.
"Some people are more resilient than others. Some bounce back faster than others. Others need more support to bounce back," she tells WebMD. "But by and large, most can bounce back. When we look at 9/11, it was amazing how many people didn't get PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). They go through a period of readjustment and are symptomatic after awhile, but then do adjust. People are remarkably resilient."
Some people make good use of community support. Others get support from religion. "There are many paths to wellness and recovery. Different things work for different people," Ritvo says. "This is a life-altering trauma. Things are never going to be the same, but people will rebuild. They will have jobs again, have families again, re-establish a sense of security. Remarkably, people will recover."
In the midst of despair, a good laugh may be the best medicine, says Lisa Lewis, PhD, director of psychology at the Menninger Clinic and professor of psychology at Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston.
Research involving survivors of many traumatic events, including the Sept. 11 tragedy, shows that positive emotions are the best predictor of resilience, Lewis tells WebMD.
"Even a brief positive emotion -- optimism, awe, amusement, pleasure -- will help you bounce back from adversity," she explains. "It helps your emotional resilience and your physiological resilience as well. Negative emotions like fear and anger increases heart rate and blood pressure, your pupils dilate, your muscles get tense. It prepares us to run or fight. We have to quell that physiological response -- which positive emotions do."
Also, acts of goodwill help nurture one's own resilience, Lewis says. "When we use our talents, virtues, strengths to contribute to the larger good, when we perform small and large acts of compassion and care giving, we enhance our own resilience. While you're doing all that, you don't necessarily feel good. In fact, it might be quite stressful. But that builds long-term reserves of emotional strength that enable you to be resilient. It will help you bounce back from adversity later on."