Terrorism, Stress and Drumming

Robert Lawrence Friedman

On September 11, 2001 the lives of all Americans changed in ways that most would never have imagined possible.  What was taken for granted before, our day-to-day safety, was replaced with fear and pervasive stress.

Yet, in a spontaneous and positive call to action, all over the world, from New York to New Zealand, drumming facilitators created drum circles to provide a vehicle of expression for the unspeakable pain and suffering that was indelibly linked to that day.

One of the organizers of a drum circle event held in New York City was Louis Carter, president of Carter Consulting, a leadership development consulting firm, who asked Remo Drumming Facilitator Mark Jacopec (aka “Barkman”) to facilitate a drumming event on the Columbia University campus.  According to Barkman, “We had between 50-100 individuals from every race and nationality joined together, drumming, connecting, and smiling.”  Despite the horrors of the terrorist act, drumming together provided a sense of togetherness that everyone seemed to need.

Louis said “I saw an Indian woman the day before our event on campus who was crying and feared for her life.  She told me that she was going to leave school and go back to India where she felt safe.  I told her that she needed to come to our drum circle and have a little fun.”  The next day Louis was happy to see her there.  The drum circle, made up of a mosaic of cultures and races, continued for hours.  “Although she drummed on the outside of the circle, this Indian woman couldn’t stop smiling.”  Seeing so much joy on her face, Louis was curious afterwards as to what effect the drumming had on her.  After experiencing the sense of community that group drumming provides, she said she would remain in America and complete her degree.  Louis gives all of the success to the drum and Barkman, who was warm and welcoming with everyone.  Barkman provided the environment for love and acceptance to occur, and the drum did the rest.

Many individuals who witnessed the World Trade Center event may have experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as terrorist incidents.  People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.

Dr. John Burt, a drummer and psychologist, who worked with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Vietnam Veterans stated that when working with veterans who saw events often as unimaginable and horrific as the World Trade Center disaster, that the drum provided a tool in which veterans were able to express their rage through hitting a drum and other underlying feelings would then emerge – feelings of sadness and despair.  He also found that when those with PTSD used a drum as a vehicle for their emotions, there was a consistent transition from anger, then to sadness and finally to exuberance.  Though, admittedly, from this writer’s standpoint, as a nation, exuberance seems very very far away.  One of the keys of Dr. Burt’s work was that he recognized that restraint of the emotion was as important as expression of the emotion , thus it was important to learn to modulate the expression of their feelings, through drumming softly as well as hard.  As a nation, to restrain our emotions is important so that we don’t harm innocent citizens.

It is clear, as a nation, that to whatever degree we can, we must learn to live our lives quite differently than before. If we can find a way to use the tools we love to help in the process of healing, this would be ideal.  Those of us who use the drum have a gift at our disposal, a gift that can provide a direct opportunity of healing our anger, our pain, and perhaps even our nation and the world. If you think you are experiencing PTSD, please see a professional who can offer you additional assistance.