Anxiety and Terrorism or The Fear of the Unknown

Health Writer

Yesterday, we once again turned on the news and watched in horror as reporters talked about and showed images of a bomb going off in Boston, right at the Boston Marathon's finish line. Runners and spectators were thrown to the ground, some severely injured and three people, including an 8 year old child died. At once, our fears escalated. Was this another attack on our country? Would we be hearing about more bombs in Boston or in other cities around the country?

There are so many still unanswered questions about yesterday's events. Was this a foreign terror group? Was it a domestic terror group? Was it the work of a single person, with some deranged sense of needing to hurt others?

The word terrorism strikes fear because we all have memories of what devastation it can bring and because it is unexpected. "The nature of terrorism is that terror groups can strike at any time, in any place. The random nature of terrorism means that we can not say who is in specific danger at any time. This randomness is meant as a psychological weapon designed to generate fear among a large group of people." [1]

Events like this one change the way we think. For example, those who were alive before the Columbine shootings remember what it was like to send your children off to school each day, without thoughts of shootings or killings. We didn't wonder if our children would come back from school. But in the ensuing years, with each new incident, the realization that this could happen, in any school, at any time, is always in the back of our minds.

And now, when you are in a crowd at a sporting event, are you going to have that nagging feeling that something terrible could happen? For most people, this feeling may occur for a while and then slowly dissipate if nothing further happens. But for those with anxiety, especially those with previous traumatic experiences, events such as this can deepen anxiety levels or trigger a panic attack.

Creating that fear seems to be part of what the perpetrators want to accomplish. They want people to remember they aren't safe. Joseph Himle, Ph.D., an associate director of the anxiety disorders program at the University of Michigan Health Center, said, "Many of the sort of stressors we're accustomed to we have some degree of control over - we can drive more carefully, we can stay out of a dark alley, we can stop smoking. In this case, it's harder for us to control the threat we face from terrorism." [2] Dr. Himle was talking about the events of September 11, 2001, but his words are true of any terrorism event, especially one that is close to home and on U.S. soil, as the incident yesterday was.

It is the fear of the unknown, of the unexpected; it is the fear of not being able to be in control of our surroundings, of not being able to protect our loved ones, that can increase our anxiety and make it harder to cope with everyday life.

So what can you do? Dr. Himle suggests keeping to your normal routine. "Work and fun, rest and relaxation all help keep our lives in balance. What can happen during times like these is that we cut back on many of the things we use to balance our lives and help control the stress. We may spend less time with others, we cut back on exercise, we don't do as many things for fun - we cut back at the very time we need these activities the most." [3]

Dr. Stephen Cox, M.D. President and Medical Director of the National Anxiety Foundation, reminds us that our emotions often stem from our thoughts. Forcing yourself to think courageous, brave, peaceful or calm thoughts will help you feel calmer and less anxious. He suggests that you write down your fearful thoughts and then read it back to yourself, noticing that it is untrue, an exaggeration or unlikely to ever occur. This can help you change your thoughts to invoke a calmer, less anxious, reaction. [4]

If this, or any other events, cause anxiety, or a worsening of your anxiety symptoms, talk with your doctor or therapist. You may also want to reach out to friends and relatives for support. Remember, there is help for anxiety.


[2] [3] "Dealing with Terrorism Anxiety," Date Unknown, Staff Writer,

[1] "Terror Threats and Anxiety," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Binghamton University

[4] "Terrorism Fear: What You Can Do to Alleviate It," Date Unknown, Stephen Cox, M.D., National Anxiety Foundation