Attaining Closure After Sept. 11 Boosted Health, Happiness Says UA Psychologist

NEW ORLEANS — A new study at the University of Arkansas suggests that people have been quick to recover psychologically from the events of September 11 and that those who have attained closure experience better physical health than those who have not.

In addition, the study indicates that individuals who refused to let the attacks reshape their view of the world recovered more swiftly than those who undertook extensive reevaluation of their beliefs and perspectives. It also showed that the majority of people succeeded in attaining closure despite an inability to "make sense" of what had happened.

"A lot of people think that finding closure and making sense of an event amount to the same thing. Not necessarily," said Denise Beike, associate professor of psychology. "Sometimes closure just means becoming satisfied with the level of understanding that you have."

As a natural response to tragedy, people struggle to find explanations and meaning. "But with an event as complex as September 11, it’s probably healthier for people to accept the fact that they’ll never fully understand it," Beike added.

On Saturday, June 8, Beike will present the full results of her study at the annual American Psychological Society convention in New Orleans. She represents one of four researchers invited to participate in a special session called "Psychological Science Perspectives on September 11th." The other presenters are Richard McNally of Harvard University and John Darley and Susan Fiske of Princeton.

Beike, who has spent the past several years studying the psychological and physical health benefits of attaining closure, recruited 111 Arkansas students to answer a series of questionnaires following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Each participant had previously completed a survey assessing their physical health status over the preceding six months.

Beike’s questionnaire listed 26 common coping mechanisms, ranging from more positive options — like expressing one’s feelings to family and friends — to negative approaches — such as taking drugs or alcohol to numb oneself. Beike asked participants to indicate which of the coping mechanisms they had employed since the attacks. She then asked them to rate on a 1 to 10 scale the extent to which they had put the events of September 11 behind them.

Beike collected responses to the questionnaire three times over a three month period — on September 12-13, approximately seven weeks later at the end of October, and nearly 13 weeks later in mid-December. At the conclusion of the study, she asked participants to complete a final survey concerning their physical health.

"By the middle of December, almost all of the subjects showed significant recovery. About 96 percent reported a higher rating of closure than they had on the first questionnaire, and the final closure scores were only slightly lower than the scores we see when people talk about everyday, closed life events," Beike said.

Further, the health surveys showed that those who reported higher ratings of closure in December experienced fewer days of illness and required fewer doctor visits over the three month period. This finding fits with other studies Beike has conducted, which have indicated that achieving closure confers both physical and mental health benefits.

In analyzing the questionnaires, Beike noted that participants who achieved greater closure, and therefore better health, tended to adopt coping mechanisms that emphasized personal action and affirmation. Many reported that they had "tried to fix or change the problem myself" or "promised to work harder in the future."

"It’s hard to say what people meant when they said they would work harder because the average person can’t work harder and make terrorism go away. But I think it means these people were telling themselves that they could make a difference — that if they gave blood or did more to help others, something would get better," Beike explained. "They were looking for ways to regain control of their lives."

But in looking at the results, Beike also noticed that those who most successfully coped with the tragedies of September 11 reported that they had not undertaken a radical reevaluation of the world. And those who did reevaluate showed lower closure ratings throughout the study. Beike suspects that many people tried to follow the advice of President Bush and the national media — recommending that Americans fight terrorism by carrying on with their normal lives.

In fact, the people who most successfully recovered from the terrorist attacks seemed to defy the idea that those events had changed their lives. This may indicate that Americans have gradually realized how little the events of September 11 have impacted their day to day routine. As a result, the majority of Americans have probably recovered from the trauma more quickly than they anticipated.

According to Beike, this rapid recovery may be as much cultural as psychological.

"The American culture tends to have a short memory compared with older cultures that place a great deal of emphasis on heritage and tradition," Beike suggested. "For many Americans, it’s all about the future. Some people would argue that’s a fault," she added. "But on an individual basis, that perspective appears to be quite good for our health."

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