4 Ways to Manage Anxiety about Terrorism

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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. This is why terrorist attacks can be so traumatizing and anxiety-inducing.

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.

But even for those who are not experiencing 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.

Increased worry is a natural response and one that is especially likely for individuals with generalized anxiety disorder who are vulnerable to uncontrollable worry.

Fortunately, there are some effective strategies that you can use to help cope with anxiety about the past or future terrorist activity. Using these techniques may not completely eliminate your worry, but they can make your fears more manageable.

Have a Safety Plan

While there might not be much that you can do individually to prevent the risk of a terrorist attack, there are things about the situation that you can control. For example, you can take steps that will help keep you and your family safe. One way to do this is to have a plan for what you will do in the event of a terrorist attack.

Allow the anxiety to be productive by creating a safety plan. Remember, anxiety is actually an adaptive state. It can help you prepare to face dangers.

In this instance, it 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 example:

  • Designate an emergency contact: Find a friend or family member who lives out of town who can check on you in the event of an emergency. 
  • Have a communication plan: Make sure that everyone in your household knows each other's contact information as well as the contact information for school, work, and emergency services.
  • Be prepared: Create an emergency preparedness kit that includes medical supplies, food, water, flashlight, and copies of important documents.

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.

Estimate Risk Rationally

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. Some things to remember:

  • Bad news garners more attention: The news doesn'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.”
  • Media coverage can bias predictions of risk: Unfortunately, this greatly biases us to over-attend to the horrific events and to under-attend to the mundane non-events occurring every day. 
  • Tragic events are often more memorable: Terrorist attacks tend to loom larger in our minds because they are out of the ordinary. Because such events come to mind so readily, we tend to think they are more common than they really are.

Coping with anxiety about terrorism requires awareness of biased thought patterns and cues. Consider how your fears might be influenced by such biases then try to find ways to think about the potential risk in a rational, realistic way.

Challenge beliefs that maximize risk by looking for evidence against your assumption and notice the impact this has on anxiety.

Control Your Exposure

It can be difficult to manage your fear if you are always watching anxiety-inducing media reports or coverage of terrorist attacks. If the 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.

This doesn't mean that you should ignore or not allow yourself to be aware of what is going on in the world. But watching constant replays of terrible events on cable news programs can stir up an endless storm of negative emotions. Stay informed, but limit your exposure. Choose a few reliable news sources while avoiding those that sensationalize the news or offer polarizing takes on world events.

Contain the Worry

When worry feels especially out of your control, there are several ways to put yourself back in charge. Some things that you can do to regain control and feel more empowered to cope with worry:

  • Plan time to worry: 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.
  • Use relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises that slow the breath will also slow the brain and help to put worries a little further out of reach.
  • Practice self-care: Taking care of your physical health—resting well and exercising regularly – can also help lessen anxiety symptoms.

Keep Going

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. 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.

In the wake of terrorist activity, if 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.

A Word From Verywell

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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  1. American Red Cross. Terrorism safety tips.