Coping with Anxiety Caused by a Terror Attack

The world has again been hit by a major terror attack, and in the ever shrinking global village that we live in, the ripples of fear spread far and wide. Even when the attack does not happen in our local area or country, many people still find that the events leave them feeling understandably anxious. So, how should we cope with our feelings in the days and weeks following a terror attack that we didn’t personally experience?

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  • Know that you are not alone. What you are feeling is normal. Understand that your anxious response is natural and many other people will be feeling the same way. Whilst others may seem to be going ahead with their everyday lives as usual, many will be thinking about how they would cope in such circumstances and find themselves dwelling on fears about their own family and friends being killed or hurt.

  • Talk to others about how you feel. Whilst it wouldn’t be healthy to focus all of your attention and conversation on the attacks, in the days following the event, some discussion, with both those close to you, and those not so close, can be helpful. Talking through your fears with those closer to you, and using small talk with those not so close, can help you to articulate your feelings and bring about a sense of solidarity and comfort. If you have children and you know that they are aware of what has happened, ask them how they feel about the news, but keep in mind that it is possible for children to be influenced by news reports and adult conversations.

  • Limit your exposure to the media and social media. Our human negativity bias, a survival strategy inherited from our early ancestors (who lived in very dangerous environments), naturally draws our attention to negative news stories. This is why negative stories dominate the media and why we feel compelled to watch. So it’s natural to want to follow updates of terrorist events on television and social media. However, repeated exposure to the trauma by the media can have as similar an impact as experiencing the event first-hand. Reading fearful and angry public comments on what happened and what action should be taken can peak anxiety and feelings of helplessness. So plan times when you want to catch up with the news, and try to notice when you’re automatically checking for updates without being aware of what you’re doing.

  • View the event in a balanced way. There is evidence that the mass panic predicted by the media rarely happens, and more often than not, people caught up in traumatic events are cooperative, helpful, and caring to one another. Also, when the event does come to mind, for at least some of the time, make an effort to redirect your attention away from anger towards and fear of the perpetrators, and towards compassion for the victims.

  • Be aware that your mind is not very good at assessing risk. We tend to overestimate our chances of being caught up in a terrorist attack due to a number of irrational ways of thinking. Some of these include:

    • Overestimating risk if a recent event is particularly dramatic and receives saturation coverage in the media. We do not see dramatic in-depth media coverage of other causes of death which are more common, such as road traffic accidents.

    • Lack of awareness of common events. We do not focus on the far more common non-events that occur every day, such as the number of flights that safely arrive at an airport, or the number of positive social interactions between people of different religions. These events, which a far more accurate indicator of reality, do not make the news as they are common and are more likely to occur.

    • The recency effect. We think a dramatic event is more likely to happen if a similar event happened recently. This is the case after terrorist attacks, virus outbreaks such as Ebola, and aeroplane accidents.

    • Overestimating risk when it appears uncertain. When feeling anxious we associate uncertainty with danger. However, we live with other uncertainties that we accept every day, such as driving to work, eating in cafes, crossing the street, and sitting next to someone who we don’t know.

  • Stick to your daily routines, continue to do enjoyable things, and avoid preoccupation with things that you can’t control. The aim of terror events is often to try to force us to change our everyday activities. This can often increase anxiety and focus our mind on how the event has changed our lives. Keeping in mind that we are not very good at assessing risk, maintaining daily routines enables us to live our lives normally and takes the focus away from our anxiety. Going out of our way to avoid mass transit, major cities, and popular events can raise fears, particularly in children. Limiting interaction with strangers stops us from meeting people who don’t look like us, and can cause our anxiety to rise through stereotyping.

  • Create an emergency plan when travelling or visiting major events, but keep it low-key. Preparing a plan that details how you’ll keep in contact with your family and friends if something should happen can give a feeling of preparedness and control. Keep in mind that it is very unlikely that you will need it.

  • Breathe. When we slow down our breathing and take deep breaths we are telling our body to switch from the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response to the parasympathetic nervous system’s relax response. Take a short, strong, inward breath through your nose for two seconds and then breath out slowly through your mouth for 5–7 seconds. The response is almost immediate and can be surprisingly powerful.

  • Try a mindfulness exercise. To give yourself a break from the anxious chattering of your mind, try staying present when doing some routine tasks such as washing the dishes, putting out the bins, or getting dressed. Focusing purely on the act itself whist carrying out short tasks is manageable for beginners to mindfulness and can help give us a break from the anxious autopilot tendency of the mind.

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