4 Ways to Manage Anxiety about Terrorism

Steps to enable a more peaceful mindset.

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Acts of terror – like the 2016 Bastille Day attack in Nice, the 2015 shootings in Paris, the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, and the 2001 9/11 attacks – share a common aim: to instill fear, to terrify us. For those with direct (and in some cases, even indirect) contact with past events, trying to mentally process the unimaginable can take a measurable toll. Direct or vicarious exposure to traumatic events can result in a wake of intrusive images, nightmares, and avoidant behavior that if persistent and severe can develop into full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.

But even for those who are not suffering from trauma-related symptoms, the unpredictable and horrific nature of these events can easily create an uptick in worry about safety and heightened fear of future tragedies. This is a natural response and one that is especially likely for individuals with generalized anxiety disorder who are vulnerable to uncontrollable worry.

To cope with anxiety about the past or future terrorist activity:

  • Allow the anxiety to be productive by creating a safety plan. Remember, anxiety is actually an adaptive state. In this instance, in can be helpful if you harness it to create a plan for your family about how you’ll be in contact and where you will go if a problem arises. For templates on how to complete a comprehensive plan, see the options available through Ready.gov. Once you have an emergency preparedness plan in place, remember that you’ll be unlikely to need it.
  • Rationally re-estimate risk. A common thinking error that occurs in the wake of acts of terror is the overestimation of risk. This type of cognitive distortion is called maximization. The misperception is a result of the recency, atrocity, and unpredictability of the events, as well as the attention they receive in the media. Note that news outlets don’t tend to report on all the planes that land safely or the people who are not attacked each day – it’s simply not “news-worthy.” Unfortunately, this greatly biases us to over-attend to the horrific events and to under-attend to the mundane non-events occurring every day. Coping with anxiety about terrorism requires awareness of biased thought patterns and their cues. If worry about future events is stoked by reading the newspaper or repeatedly checking social media platforms, limiting your consumption of news coverage or distressing videos may help. Challenge beliefs that maximize risk by looking for evidence against your assumption and notice the impact this has on anxiety.
  • Contain the worry. When worry feels especially out of your control, there are several ways to put yourself back in charge. Worry time is one way to stop your brain amid distracting spirals of worry in favor of limiting yourself to a brief, prescribed worry period each day. Breathing exercises that slow the breath will also slow the brain and help to put worries a little further out of reach. Finally, taking care of your physical health – resting well and exercising regularly – can also help lessen anxiety symptoms.
  • Keep on keeping on.  The best antidote to anxiety – counterintuitive as it may seem – is to stick with your daily routine. The anxiety cycle is worsened by avoidant behavior. The concept of exposure – purposefully not avoiding and instead seeking out feared stimuli – is a mainstay of formalized anxiety treatment and it’s no less important in informally helping yourself and your loved ones to manage terrorism-related stress. Ultimately, maintaining a stable daily routine (or returning to one as quickly as possible) is the strongest signal to yourself, and to any person who might wish society harm, that a healthy way of life will not be threatened by terrorist threats.

    If in the wake or terrorist activity, you are finding it hard to manage your worry or feel that fear is getting in the way of your day-to-day responsibilities, consider speaking with a mental health professional or with your physician.

    For information on how to communicate with children about terrorism and how to help them manage their fears, here are a few resources to check out:

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