COPING WITH TERRORISM
From the American Psychological Association
Terrorism threatens a society by instilling fear and helplessness in its
citizens. It seeks to hold a society or government hostage by fear of
destruction and harm.
When terrorist acts occur, people generally look for ways to cope with the acute
stress and trauma. Terrorism evokes a fundamental fear of helplessness. The
violent actions are random, unprovoked, and intentional, and often are targeted
at defenseless citizens. Trying to cope with the irrational information that is
beyond normal comprehension can set off a chain of psychological events
culminating in feelings of fear, helplessness, vulnerability, and grief.
Xenophobia -- fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners -- can be heightened
under a terrorist threat and can become a social and psychological danger. The
fear generated by terrorism can be exacerbated by a populationís diversity if
there is distrust between groups, categories and classification of citizens.
People need to recognize that diversity in a population is often an opportunity
for unity and strength. There are members of our diverse society who have
experienced past terrorist incidents. The knowledge and experience they have
gained from surviving and coping with these incidents can make them a valuable
resource on how to cope and how to offer assistance to others.
Who Is Affected?
After a terrorist attack, many people are impacted. People who have
experienced the trauma often fall into the following categories:
Survivors of past traumatic events (e.g. refugees of wars, terrorism, or
torture, and survivors of domestic violence, child abuse, or street crime).
These individuals may have a heightened sense of vulnerability.
- People who personally witnessed or were victims of the terrorist attack.
- People who experience traumatization from learning of relatives, friends
and acquaintances who were subject to the violence, or from exposure to
repeated media accounts of the trauma.
What You May Experience Following a Terrorist Attack
People who have experienced or witnessed a terrorist attack may go into a
state of acute stress reaction. You may feel one or all of these symptoms:
- Recurring thoughts of the incident
- Becoming afraid of everything, not leaving the house, or isolating
- Stopping usual functioning, no longer maintaining daily routines
- Survivor guilt -- "Why did I survive? I should have done something more."
- Tremendous sense of loss
- Reluctance to express your feelings, losing a sense of control over your
Coping with the Trauma
Identify the feelings that you may be experiencing. Understand that your
are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Remember that you have overcome
adversity and trauma in the past. Try to remember what you did that helped you
overcome the fear and helplessness in that situation. Talk to others about your
fears. Itís okay to ask for help. Workplaces may convene small groups with an
counselor or other mental health counselor so people can share feelings.
Make efforts to maintain your usual routine. Think positively. Realize that
get better. Be realistic about the time it takes to feel better. Recognize that
nature of terrorist attacks creates fear and uncertainty about the future.
do the things in your life that you enjoy. Donít get preoccupied with the things
cannot control to the extent that they prevent you from living your normal life.
Know the actions our government is taking to combat terrorism and restore safety
and security. Recognize that trained officials throughout the country are
mobilized to prevent, prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks. Limit
exposure to media
Tips for helping children cope:
- Encourage children to say how they are feeling about the event.
- Ask children what they have seen, heard or experienced.
- Assure children that their parents are taking care of them and will
continue to help them deal with anything that makes them feel afraid.
- Help children recognize when they have shown courage in meeting a new
scary situation and accomplished a goal despite hardship or barriers. Instill
a sense of empowerment.
- Let children know that institutions of democracy are still in place and
our government is intact. (It can also be helpful for adults to realize this.)
- Know that it is possible for children to experience vicariously the
traumatization from the terrorist attack (e.g. watching TV coverage,
overhearing adult conversations).
If you are having trouble coping with the terrorist attacks, consider seeking
help from a psychologist or other mental health professional. There are many
ways to feel traumatized by terrorist incidents. Psychologists and other
licensed mental health professionals are trained to help people cope and take
positive steps toward managing their feelings and behaviors.
This fact sheet was made possible by help from the following APA members: Rona
M. Fields, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and professor of sociology. She has
researched and written on stress and violence of terrorism in societies and
situations of change and upheaval. She is a frequent consultant on terrorism and
its effects and has worked in Northern Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, South America
and Asia. Joe Margolin, Ph.D., is a Clinical - Social Psychologist who has
on the social stresses of terrorism. He has worked with victims of terrorism in
Israel, Latin America and the United States.