young boy covers his face in fear

How to Handle Fears About Terrorism

Terrorism: The news seems to constantly filled with stories of bombings and plots. Over and over again, we hear “remain vigilant.”  Clearly, our world seems more frightening than ever. Fears seem ever-present.

The news can make all of us have many fears.  Will we become victims of the next terror act? Should we be on guard constantly?  How can we handle the information overflow and everyone talking about fears of terror?

Of course, we must keep ourselves safe, but we must equally enjoy our lives and stay present in the day-to-day.  To balance the threats against living your life, here are some ideas to handle common problems from anxiety and fears:

1. I Really Think the Worst will Happen: When anxiety and our fears increase, our thoughts become filled with predictions about catastrophic outcomes that seem very certain to occur. We tend to over-estimate the chances of what we see on the news happening to us. Be sure you consider how likely it really is, here in hometown USA, and give your fearful thoughts a does of healthy reality.

2. I’m Helpless to do Anything: Anxiety tells us that bad things are certain, and we won’t be able to deal with them.  But consider this–when an emergency did happen to you, did you survive it? Did you find ways to cope? Were you able to fight back or seek safety? So often the sirens go off for bad weather, but the sadness of death, while never OK, is not often an outcome of the weather. In NYC in September, a bomb went off–a very scary thing. But all those nearby survived–they were injured–but they survived. More so, we were able to stop other bombs.  There are things we can do, everyday.  We are not helpless.

3. I Must Constantly Stay On-guard:  When we are traumatized by watching a horrible event, it’s sometimes called vicarious traumatization.  It can lead to high degrees of vigilance–known as hyper vigilance, the state of being always ready for the other shoe to drop. Our fears take control of us. One problem with hypervigilance is that we never relax, and begin to believe somehow that our over-alertness is what makes us safe. But here, balance is the key: while keeping an eye out for the unusual event, we must also remember to focus on life-at-hand.  Keep in mind that being careful is not hypervigilance.

4. I Keep Watching the News all the Time: When our fears heighten, we use “safety behaviors” that we believe reduce our risks. One of those is over monitoring news channels or apps.  If you ever refresh CNN’s app several times in a day, you find out just how little new news there is.  If you find yourself fearful because of the recent events, limit your monitoring of the news. Better you live your life, than you live in fear.

If we have anything to learn from terrorism, it is that when our fears enlarge, the terrorists succeed. Terrorists work hard to convince us how easily they can harm us.  The randomness and unpredictability of their actions create this sense of constantly being at-risk, and our anxiety detracts (and sometimes just plain stops) our attention from how often they are stopped, and, frankly, how infrequently they success here in the US. We must balance our carefulness in these difficult times with paying attention to our daily lives, loving those around us, and making our nearby world a bit better everyday.

Keep in mind these simple strategies to manage fears:

A.  Make a list of what’s important to you, and focus your energies and thoughts on doing those things.

B.  Take action on your thinking by challenging exaggerated notions of how at-risk you are.

C. Follow the “garbage-in/garbage-out” rule, so watch your usual shows and read your usual books.

D.  Notice odd or out-of-the ordinary things, like a bag left on a busy street, and report it. Be aware, fight being hypervigilant. 

E. Overcome helpless feelings by creating a plan, in case you are present during an attack. Trust your plan, don’t over-rehearse it. The plan is a sign of how capable you will be just-in-case.

For more about handling fears and exposure to terrorism in the news:

Resilience and Terrorism

Coping with Direct Exposure to Acts of Terrorism

Children and Exposure to Terrorism