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July 29, 2004

9/11 boosted U.S. need for spiritual support, faith

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—As Congress reviews the 9/11 Commission report, University of Michigan research shows the 2001 terrorist attacks on America sharply increased the need of Americans to feel spiritual and think beyond themselves.

A team of U-M and University of Washington researchers studied the impact prayer, spiritual support and positive attitudes had on Americans following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the new Journal of Personality. In a separate paper for the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture, researchers also studied the impact of wartime faith-based reactions among Muslim refugees of the wars in Kosovar and Bosnia, linking violent crises and faith coping.

In both cases, focusing on a higher power through prayer and spiritual support appeared to lessen emotional distress and boost positive attitudes. The researchers found 62 percent of a national cross sample of more than 457 U.S. undergraduate and graduate students studied said they used private prayer to cope with 9/11 difficulties and national trauma. The researchers also reinforced evidence linking faith and optimism.

"The pattern resembles the one shown in a cardiac study that associated greater depression in the month following a cardiac crisis—major surgery—with the use of prayer," said U-M researcher of integrative medicine Amy Ai, who also holds a University of Washington appointment. "Patients who prayed, however, had better psychological adjustment one year later, after controlling for initial depression."

The research reinforces earlier U-M research showing a surge in theological feelings after 9/11. The researchers, including Ai and U-M psychology professor Christopher Peterson as well as U-M philosophy professor Terrence Tice, are pioneers in the new field of positive psychology, linking optimal expectation with faith.

"The unprecedented crucial nature of 9/11 in a non-war context may have driven our students to turn to a higher power for help, even though the prevalent stereotype of them is not to be very religious," Ai said. "Prayer-coping, prevalent among these students and associated with spiritual support, appeared to be one way to approach interconnectedness in their confronting the national tragedy."

When Ai and her colleagues studied 138 refugees of the Kosovo and Bosnia conflicts who had resettled in Michigan and Washington, they found their use of "positive" prayer was similar to those used by the primarily Judeo-Christian Americans, using prayer for positive coping to overcome distress.

However, the researchers also found 60 percent of the Kosovar and Bosnian refugees suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, with 77 percent of the refugees having used "negative" forms of prayer such as praying that their enemies "would pay for what they have done." They found justice-seeking or anger-related religious or spiritual practice could serve as a "double-edged sword."

Researchers found that positive religious coping was related to high levels of optimism while negative religious/spiritual coping was related to reduced levels of hope.

Looking at the reaction to 9/11, Ai, Peterson and Tice also use structural equation modeling to demonstrate the mediating effect of spiritual support and positive attitudes on post-9/11 distress. Their study also unveils a new scale of spiritual support for populations with diverse beliefs. The researchers also found positive prayer caused people to think more deeply about questions such as their life’s purpose and goals and how they can make a difference.

Contact: Joe Serwach
Phone: (734) 647-1844
Email: jserwach@umich.edu