Anniversary of 9/11 and the Human Vigilance System

Anniversary of 9/11 and the Human Vigilance System

Author: Dr. Shelley Carson is a psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).


This week we will be observing the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The events of 9/11 have been described as a "wake-up call" to an America that was too calm and complacent about the threat of danger.  America has responded with increased vigilance for new threats - both as a nation and as individual citizens.


Operating on a constant high level of threat alert may be good for the nation as a whole (indeed, through our vigilance we have been able to thwart at least 40 known terror attempts since the dark days following 9/11), but it is not good for the individual human being.  Staying on indefinite high alert can cause difficulties with sleep, spark angry or aggressive outbursts, and an inability to enjoy the moment-to-moment pleasures of life.  It can also cause fatigue, as our human vigilance systems run on adrenaline and need time to be recharged and restored in between threats.  If you have returned from a deployment supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation Endruing Freedom (OEF) you may be especially vulnerable to this constant "high alert" state.


Here's a simple exercise that will temporarily ease your vigilance system into the "green zone".



  1. First, close your eyes and take in two deep lingering breaths.  Now, suspend judgment on what you feel, hear, or see.  Just experience your senses non-judgmentally.  Become aware of the mild pressure of your feet on the floor.  Just take notice of that sensation.  Now, notice the pressure where your body touches the chare.  Touch your clothing and become aware of its textures.  Feel the air around you.  Is there a breeze?  Is the air hot? Cool? Humid?

  2. Now listen.  Listen for distant noises as well as noises from close by.  Can you hear people talking?  Is the air conditioning purring? Is there a dog barking down the street?  Sit still and just listen...

  3. Open your eyes and look around you... notice the different colors and shades of color.  Notice the interplay of light and shadows and how those shadows change an objects color.  Take notice of how things in your environment intersect with each other.  Observe any movements, are the curtains swaying in the breeze?  Are the hands of a clock moving?

  4. After you've sat quietly for five minutes and noticed what is coming in through your senses without judging it, take another dep breath, appreciate teh variety of experiences that your senses bring to you, and resume your day.

Try to do this exercise a couple of times a day until you find you can naturally relax and savor what is around you.  The goal is not to deactivate your vigilance system, but rather learn to regulate it, so you are on high alert only when appropriate.  Practicing this flexibility will allow you to enjoy your family, friends, and blessings without worrying you're completely letting down your guard.


As we observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we will be remembering all those who perished on that terrible day, and all those who bravely walked into danger to save their fellow citizens.  The events of that day created many heroes, including all of you who have heeded the ensuing call to arms by volunteering for service to our Nation.  We remain safe in great part to you.  Thank you for your sacrifices.

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