If you were in the same city or country as a terrorist attack, or even just a neighbouring country which has raised its national threat levels, you might experience overwhelming emotions and anxiety for several days or weeks post the event.
How can you best handle the stress of terrorism when it strikes too close to home?
[For more on how terrorism affects us all psychologically, read our other piece, “How Global Tragedy Can Cause You Psychological Strain”.]
7 ways to manage the psychological effects of terrorism on society
1. Be honest about how you are feeling.
A desire to be respectful and sensitive to the survivors, victims, and families of victims might mean you feel too embarrassed or selfish to admit you are feeling overwhelmed or in need of support merely as you were in the vicinity of an attack. But suppressing your anxiety and worries can mean they stay unresolved, growing in power or even triggering other, older anxieties you also haven’t dealt with, putting you at risk of depression.
2. Practise the power of self-compassion.
Treat yourself gently and be on the lookout for your inner critic not letting you feel the way you feel. Imagine that a friend came to you to admit they were overwhelmed by their feelings about the terrorist event. Would you tell them to ‘just be grateful they are fine’ or to ‘get over it’, or would you be understanding and kind to them? Could you then try to treat yourself like you would this good friend?
Don’t see this as selfish – it’s been found that the more we can practice the art of self-compassion, the more, not less, we then show empathy to others.
3. Learn to recognise negative thinking spirals.
Researchers have observed that one of the main psychological effects of terrorism on society at large is a rise in what is called ‘catastrophising’. A form of negative thinking (also known as a ‘cognitive distortion‘), catastrophising leaves you going over the details of the event again and again in your head, imagining the worst possible outcomes for the future, and feeling increasingly helpless. The result is that you are increased risk for anxiety disorders, depression, and low self-esteem.
Work instead for a balanced view based on facts. What is the exact opposite view of the negative thought you just had, and between your negative thought and its opposite, is there an in-between ground that is closer to the truth?
If you feel your negative thinking and anxiety is out of control, consider ways to make the event more grounded in reality for you. Some Parisians, for example, found that a visit to the actual site of the attacks to light a candle and pay respects left them with a clearer perspective, feeling more able to process their feelings and get on with their lives.
4. Monitor your media intake.
Yes, the internet means we can keep updated with what we need to know when crisis hits, and can easily access worried friends and family.
But it also means in our panic to know all that is happening, we are privy to an onslaught of media that includes fear mongering and opinions peddled as fact, creating distorted thinking and yet more anxiety.
Be tactical. Can you choose a reliable news source instead of reading all of them? Cut back on social media until you are feeling more steady? Use a timer to monitor usage? Ask a trusted friend to only fill you in on what is necessary, and take a break entirely even?
It can pay to ask yourself why you are online all the time. Has the event possibly left you feeling lonely? This is actually a normal response to trauma. If you are fighting loneliness, is there a more positive way to find connection, such as reaching out to neighbours, or attending an event?
5. Recognise your fear factor.
Terrorist attacks leave citizens in emotional shock which can linger for days or weeks. Emotional shock involves symptoms of raised awareness, including feeling on edge, suspicious, and fearful.
The end result can be irrational thinking. For example, you might suddenly not want to take public transit even though you’re told it’s safe, or feel you should cancel all social events, or even start thinking about leaving the country.
If there is still real danger, of course, act accordingly. But learn to notice when you are making decisions simply from a place of fear. In other words, before you put your apartment up for sale, perhaps talk to others who are not in shock who can give you another perspective, or wait until you’ve had time to process your emotions.
6. Seek personal resolution over answers.
It can be hard not to want answers as to why a tragedy happened. But there are rarely satisfying answers to senseless tragedy, and allowing yourself to obsess on answers can lead right to the addictive spirals of negative thinking and media addiction discussed above.
Instead, seek an understanding that works for you. What philosophies make sense to you, personally, bring you as much personal peace as possible given the circumstances, and leave you feeling hopeful about the future and your place in it?
Consider if it’s time to set a new goal in order to find personal resolution. What actions can you now take in life that will make you feel better, not worse, about the world you live in? Is it time to start volunteering? Would you like to start working on healing your family relationships? Or is it time to begin practising mindfulness so you can appreciate the now moment more?
7. Do seek support – but with discernment.
Feeling vulnerable can diminish our discernibility, leaving us more likely to turn to people we usually wouldn’t out of a sense of panic and united suffering.
But if someone is bad at being a listener or unsupportive in good times, it’s sadly unlikely to be different in bad times – in fact they might even be more prickly as a result of their own anxiety. And just because someone was also near to the tragedy doesn’t mean they will understand your reaction, as we all respond differently to stress.
Protect yourself from the further overwhelm of feeling rejected, abandoned, or ashamed at a time when you are already feeling sensitive by trying to stick to friends and family you are sure can be true sources of love and support.
If you are not sure who to turn to, remember there are hotlines to call with listeners who are trained at being empathic, or consider speaking to a professional counsellor with experience in understanding the effects of trauma.
Has this article been helpful? Do share it. And if you have tips or an experience of handling the psychological fallout of terrorism, do so below.