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Life in America: Positive Changes Amidst the Tension

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 11, 2001 -- Like the rest of us, American Red Cross officials -- the top echelon based in Washington, D.C. -- were grouped around their TV sets as events unfolded on Sept. 11. In New York City, the local Red Cross chapter was already on site at Ground Zero when the second tower went down.

"I knew this was going to change America, and I knew it would be in a positive way, that we would rally around each other," says Gregory Smith, the Red Cross' vice-president of volunteers, youth, and nursing.

He was right. During the next three days, Red Cross phone lines across the country logged an "overwhelming response" -- two million phone calls. "Blood donation lines were backing up all over America, people wanting to translate their care and concern into help," Smith tells WebMD.

There are, indeed, signs that something good has emerged from these disastrous times. Volunteerism is up, if the Red Cross is a good barometer of the nation's efforts. Local volunteer operations are also seeing more faces: Hands-On Atlanta, for example, had its biggest turnout this year.

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Churches are full, according to one report: some 60% of Americans went to either a church or memorial service the week after Sept. 11.

People are traveling -- but mostly to see old friends and family members, says one Delta Airlines reservations clerk. "There's been an increase in calls and reservations by leaps and bounds in the last week," she tells WebMD. "There's less negativity, less fear. People are talking to their neighbors, telling each other that life goes on."

Is all this goodwill here to stay? Has it become ingrained in our culture? Or is it more likely "foxhole religion," passing once the crisis is over?

"People normally go through their lives in a shallow way," says G. Kenneth Goodrick, PhD. "It's only in the brief moments -- the moments of crisis -- when they look at what's really important in life. The terrorist acts made people stop and think, think about their lives."

Goodrick is associate professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and is author of the book, Energy, Peace, Purpose.

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"If you watch movies about World War II, you see it -- people who suddenly realize what life is all about," he says. "The worst thing that can happen for a person is that everything goes right for them -- in a material sense -- during their lives. They've never struggled, been motivated to survive, or to help others in their struggles."

During crisis, all mammals -- including humans -- tend to gather in bunches and hug each other, he tells WebMD. "It lowers blood pressure, it feels good, and it increases sense of security."

Volunteerism is a natural inclination humans have, "if they're raised right," says Goodrick. "It's the natural tendency to feel good when we do good for others." Studies of retired people have shown that those who volunteer are better off psychologically, he says. "Volunteerism is highly associated with feelings of fulfillment and happiness."

People also turn toward a "higher source" in times of crisis, says Harold Koenig, MD, who has devoted much of his career to researching the effects of prayer on healing. Koenig is associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, and author of the Handbook of Religion and Health.

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"When Congress went to the steps of the White House that day, they didn't sing 'The Star Spangled Banner'," Koenig tells WebMD. "They sang 'God Bless America.' It's become the model of the time, a reflection of the general turning to religion in response to stress, to uncertainty. It's the same thing we see when people get sick."

Praying together helps ease the sense of vulnerability, Koenig says. "People are focused on getting together with their family, their religious family. It gives a sense of comfort, meaning, a sense of control. It's important to do something when there's nothing we can realistically do. You can be anxious or stressed, or you can pray, get together with others, support each other."

With human beings, natured as they are, some will surely remain unchanged by these recent experiences, by their newfound spirituality, Koenig tells WebMD.

But for some, this could be a life-altering event, he says. "Those who have a positive experience -- those who experience relief from stress and isolation -- they're the ones. If you feel that once, you want to feel that again."

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Human beings, indeed, have a tendency to regress to old habits, says Goodrick. However, there's hope some things will change, he says. "It could be that some religious institutions will become strengthened and carry on -- that families will get to talk to each other more."

However, it's likely this military action -- and its effects -- will be felt for a long time, says Smith. We'll simply have to adapt to a heightened sense of uncertainty. To get through the worst of times, we must embrace the spirit of helping each other, he tells WebMD.

"For 25 years, I lived in northern California, where preparedness for catastrophe is a way of life," Smith says. "That's what our community -- in particular the America Red Cross -- is going to ask of people. Americans -- individually and as communities -- need to be prepared to help each other, to do what we must to survive."

"If you could stand on the moon, look back at planet Earth, you'd see how beautiful it is from a distance," he says. "But if you live here, you realize this is, at best, a difficult place to eke out an existence. We have hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, pestilence, famine -- plus the things we do to ourselves. The notion of being prepared must become a constant."

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