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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Fearing "Fear, Itself" -- Terrorism In America

“Everybody is filled with what we sometimes refer to as anticipatory anxiety -- worrying about something that is not currently happening in our lives but could happen. And they are worrying that the randomness of it, which on one hand makes the odds of something happening to them very small, that randomness also makes it possible to happen to them.”

--Alan Hilfer, former chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center
in Brooklyn who is now in private practice.

(N.R. Kleinfield. "Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders."
The New York Times. December 03, 2015.)

The mass shooting in San Bernardino has once again ignited a collective fear of terrorism in America.
Another act of senseless violence has taken the lives of many innocent people. And, at the same time, such terrorist acts exact another heavy price -- a psychological burden. Spreading widespread fear is one of the primary goals of those who perpetrate foreign and domestic terrorism. Anxiety and unconscious fear can be formidable enemies that debilitate the populace.

Terrorism as a method of societal destabilization is more concerned with the perception of reality rather than reality itself. In the wake of London terror attacks, Trauma psychologist Robert R. Butterworth, Ph.D. explained how terror destabilizes society ...

"Thus it’s not surprising that 'Anticipatory Anxiety' -- fear of what one may fantasize could occur as a result of terrorist actions -- can be more psychologically damaging to a society than the actual reality that does unfold. This is why people are not riding the metros, canceling vacations, not flying, or afraid of being assembled in large groups."



(Robert R. Butterworth, Ph.D. "London Attacks Raise Psychological Anticipatory
Anxiety Symptoms." University of the Rockies. July 23, 2005.)

Butterworth said during a period of uncertainty, in a psychological sense, “It’s what we don’t know and fantasize about that can hurt us. The adage, ‘The only fear is fear itself,’ rings true, especially in this case… Fantasy breeds fear.”

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned Americans about the Great Depresseion in 1933, he was telling them not to allow their understandable, justified fears to keep them from doing what needed to be done. The exact quote is instructive: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

(Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard. Fear of Fear: "The Role of Fear in Preparedness … and Why It Terrifies Officials." The Peter Sandman Risk Communication Website. 2003.)

Dr. Butterworth adds, “With all the talk and speculation of future terrorist actions involving everything from biological to chemical agents it’s no wonder that the fear of the future can be more unsettling than the trauma and depression resulting from past events.”

The trauma psychologist believes that in order to win this psychological battle of fear it’s important for people not to get swept up in unsubstantiated rumors of doom. Butterworth explains that even after terrorist attacks, people cannot let fear paralyze their lives:

"(It's important) Not to panic and give in to hysteria. The reality is that we’re angry and scared but going to work. Children are nervous but going to school. We’re not hiding in our homes but starting to get back on planes and the stock market has stabilized. — Remembering that the psychological goals of the terrorists were not just to topple our buildings but destroy our way of life.”

As we know, the aim of a terrorist attack is to overwhelm a country's population with terror, and thus achieve organizational and political aims. Sandman and Lanard delineate the difference between fear and terror. They say ...

"Fear is not necessarily terror. This is a conceptual mistake officials routinely make, a mistake they seem terribly attracted to – the embedded, preconscious, erroneous assumption that all fear is one short step removed from panic. Some fear is. Most fear is not...

"When officials express their reluctance about 'unduly frightening people,' they are literally right. The key word here is 'unduly.'  Unduly frightening people is wrong. Duly frightening people is right, and important. The problem is telling the two apart.

"What the research actually shows is that moderate fear is very effective in motivating changes in behavior, as long as people start out insufficiently frightened. Alarming apathetic people isn’t easy, but when accomplished it is an effective way to get them to take precautions. If people are already very frightened, on the other hand, it helps to acknowledge and legitimize their fear, but trying to frighten them further can backfire. And if people are already in denial about the danger, fear appeals can push them deeper into denial.

"The distinction is partly a matter of degree -- 'enough' fear versus 'excessive' fear. Perhaps in addition there are kinds of fear like the kinds of cholesterol -- 'good' fear versus 'bad' fear. But we suspect the key difference is neither the amount of fear nor the kind of fear, but rather people’s ability to bear the fear. Much is known about how to enhance that ability. Among the things that help:

  • Give people things to do – action binds anxiety.
  • Give people things to decide – decision-making provides more individual control, which makes fear more tolerable.
  • Encourage appropriate anger – the desire to get even often trumps the desire to cower.
  • Encourage love (and camaraderie) – soldiers, for example, fight for their friends and for their country.
  • Provide candid leadership – we get more frightened when our leaders seem to be misleading us.
  • Show your own fear and show you can bear it – apparently fearless leaders are little help to a fearful public."



(Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard. Fear of Fear: "The Role of Fear in Preparedness … and Why It Terrifies Officials." The Peter Sandman Risk Communication Website. 2003.)

Fighting Terrorism

In reflection of proper actions to combat terrorism, I believe that recognizing fear and justifying it are essential to our democratic existence -- accepting real threats, without reacting in panic or hysteria, is beneficial to bearing anxiety and to maintaining the free, American way of life. At the same time, we must realize that when we allow our perception of reality to rule us and alter our life, we can easily cave into fearing "fear, itself." To a terrorist, this is a "win/win" situation -- an act that takes innocent lives and that creates undue terror and mass anxiety.

Stephen Cox, M.D. and President of the National Anxiety Foundation, expounds on the duty of American citizens in the face of terrorism ...

"Combating this fear is not just desirable. Combating this fear is the duty of each and every citizen. And helping other citizens to fight this fear is the duty of every citizen. Mitigating your fear and alleviating fear in others is your obligation.

"Every time you feel afraid, it should help to think courageous thoughts or calming thoughts. This is not rocket science. If you have ever had a friend who was frightened and you tried to console them, what did you tell them? You didn't agree with them and tell them that whatever dangerous possibility they were afraid of was certain to occur. No, you tried to reassure them that in your opinion they overestimated the actual risk of harm and the situation was not as dangerous as they told themselves it was."


(Stephen Cox. "Terrorism Fear: What You Can Do To Alleviate It?" healthyplace.com. 2015.)

Our national anxiety is not unwarranted. It is real. It is culpable. And, it is becoming more and more troubling. Still, it is up to us, as a resilient nation, to keep it in check as we devise new and better strategies to stop groups like ISIL.

After September 11, 2001, 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.”

Dr. Himle suggests, even in the face of uncertainty, keeping to our normal routine. Himle says ...

“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.”

(Dr. Joseph Himle. "Dealing With Terrorism Anxiety." Health Resources Publishing. 2003.) 

Bruce M. Hyman, Ph.D. says, "The fact that our present enemy is not a specific entity, but rather a world-wide network of hidden terrorist 'cells,' some inhabiting our own cities, is particularly unnerving." But, keeping our sense of risk in proper perspective is paramount to dealing with this situation. Hyman suggests managing anxiety by "gaining control by thinking, not just reacting" and "finding something positive you can do" like giving blood, getting a flu shot, and setting up a safe room in your home.

Fear, uncertainty, and vigilance in the face of our nation’s international war on terrorism can reek havoc on nervous individuals who, in a sense, already live every day of their lives as if they were in a “war zone.” The challenge we face is not to perceive reality with debilitating terror, but instead, to live our lives freely as we take meaningful measures to defeat those mission is to instill widespread anxiety.

“The spirit of democracy cannot be established in the midst of terrorism, whether governmental or popular.”

--Mohandas Gandhi






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