The Threat of Terrorism
Coping with fear of the unknown
The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate…”
Incidents of terrorism in our world have become too familiar, too close to home, and for many of us, a source of high anxiety. Statistically, we are unlikely to die at the hands of terrorists, but despite the odds, the threat weighs heavily on our minds.
When a horrific act is committed, our natural response is to think about the probability of becoming victims ourselves. The problem with this line of thinking, according to experts, is that we’re likely to miscalculate risk based on several illogical considerations. Immediately following a terrible event, for example, people tend to overestimate the likelihood of similar occurrences.
We often think that there is more risk when something very bad has just happened, according to Dr. Robert L. Leahy, Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical School. “The recency of an event leads to increased fear of its reoccurrence,” he says. Furthermore, we’re likely to overestimate risk when an incident is dramatic and its graphic images are displayed over and over again in the news. “We do not see pictures of skin cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, car accidents, or the effects of obesity or alcoholism,” points out Leahy. “Yet these illnesses are far more dangerous and kill far more people.”
The randomness of terrorism also affects how we perceive its threat. “Its unpredictable nature instills people with anxiety over the lack of control in their fate,” Anne Marie Albano, Director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, said in an interview. When we’re not in control, we often feel vulnerable which can exaggerate our feelings of risk and anxiousness.
When it comes to coping with the threat of terrorism, mental health experts and law enforcement officials agree that maintaining normalcy and going about our daily routines is key. Other ways of coping include:
- Thinking rationally and reminding ourselves of the low probability of becoming victims
- Limiting our exposure to news and social media outlets that thrive on sensationalism
- Keeping stress levels low by eating right, exercising, and making time to relax
- Creating an emergency plan and sharing it with family (knowing that we probably won’t need it)
- Talking openly with family, friends, and mental health professionals who can help us create a plan for managing our apprehension
Whether we struggle with anxiety or not, terrorism can disrupt the thoughts and routines of any one of us. As we strive to keep the threat in perspective, it may be inspiring to remember that by challenging our instinct to overestimate risk, we are ultimately helping to prevent a small contingent of bad people from achieving their goal to instill terror.
South Shore Mental Health