Coping With Fear of Terrorism

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Not too long ago, most of us caught up on what was happening in the world by reading a daily newspaper or watching the nightly news. These days, we have ample access to 24-hour news coverage and social media. But nonstop reporting of news events has its downsides, say some experts who worry that it may be causing undue anxiety.

Ironically, you’re less likely to be a victim of an attack than you are of harming your health when you overconsume news about terrorism, which can increase your emotional distress and decrease feelings of peace and well-being.

The only thing we have to fear …

In a 2014 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem asked more than 17,000 healthy Israeli volunteers during annual checkups that spanned 11 years about their fear of terrorism. Each year, the researchers measured the participants’ resting heart rate, which typically slows with aging. After accounting for other factors, the researchers could tie increases in heart rate, which is associated with an elevated risk of heart disease and heart attack, to long-term fear of terrorism.

Fear of terrorism also correlated with a decline of a neurotransmitter in the blood that reacts to stress and prevents an inflammatory response. Levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, rose in those who experienced fear of terrorism; they also had elevated heart rates. This combination of fear and rapid heart rate can increase the risk of premature death.

A natural response

It’s natural to react to a terrorist event with fear and anxiety—acts of terrorism are intended to instill fear in the public. But how do you know whether your fear is cause for concern? One way to tell is to ask yourself whether fear is preventing you from participating in activities you usually enjoy.

For example, when you hear sirens, is your first thought that there has been an attack on your grandson’s school? Have you ever stood in line at a movie and decided not to enter the theater because someone was carrying a backpack and looked suspicious? Have you ever not boarded a plane because a passenger appeared as if he or she could be a terrorist?

If your answer was yes to any of those questions, you could be suffering from a form of anxiety manifested by the fear of an act of terrorism.

Regain control

Everyone worries about their safety, but when those worries interfere with your everyday living, it’s probably time to step back and reexamine your fears.

Debra Kissen, Ph.D., the clinical director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago and co-chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America Public Education Committee, says that one problem contributing to our fears is that we’re exposed to too many triggers—words and images that appear on TV or social media—that can make us anxious. “If you always have the news on, your mind stays on constant alert. Regular exposure to images makes it feel as though the event is happening more frequently, and we’re retraumatized each time we see them. I believe that much of our anxiety comes from this nonstop access to information we’re all flooded with.”

Kissen suggests practicing self-control and self-care by limiting exposure. “Turn off the TV, meditate, or go for a walk in the neighborhood,” Kissen says. “Do something calming and soothing to activate a different part of your brain.”

And don’t feel guilty about turning away from a tragedy on TV and doing something enjoyable instead, she says. “Engage in a life that matters versus watching the news. You don’t have to pretend that atrocities don’t happen, but instead make all your moments count and create change by doing something positive, such as volunteering or even something as simple as walking your dog, and creating joy in your life, which can trickle down to others.”

Kissen suggests other approaches you can take toward relieving your fears:

Try to be cognitively aware of your anxiousness. Compare fear-based thoughts with fact-based thoughts. Confront your fear and come up with a rational response to put things in perspective. According to some experts, Kissen says, you have a one in 20 million chance of dying in a terrorist attack. But the National Safety Council says your odds of dying of a heart attack are one in seven, and your odds of dying after a fall are one in 133.

Practice mindfulness. Teach your brain to be attentive to the present moment. When different thoughts or feelings appear, practice returning your attention to an anchor to diffuse intruding thoughts. You can learn to acknowledge the scary thoughts, and then resume what you had been doing. For tips on how to practice mindfulness, visit Thinkmindfully.com.

Consider speaking with a mental health professional. “If you’re having trouble coping,” Kissen says, “sometimes just having someone to talk with and give you another perspective can help.”

Engage in values-based living

Every day, schedule at least one behavior associated with something you value and can control, Kissen says, to free yourself from the barrier of fear. Identify your true values by asking yourself:

• What is important to me? • What do I want my life to be about? • Where do I want to put my energy, and where am I currently putting it? • Which activities are worth the risks built into living?