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Coping with Terrorism and Trauma

Negative media coverage can cause anxiety and stress, but top therapists offer some simple tricks to face down your fears.

by Ken Budd

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As a student of human behavior and global events, Debra Kissen, Ph.D.—a licensed therapist and a CNN junkie—knows that a flood of bad news can make us feel, well, bad. “When we see pain, we feel pain,” says Kissen, clinical director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago, who led a recent webinar titled “Taking the Terror Out of Terrorism” for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). “If we didn’t feel afraid and sad, we wouldn’t be human.”

Given today’s onslaught of horrific news events, it’s no surprise that our societal sadness is increasing. In July alone, President Obama ordered that flags be flown at half-staff three times: for the murder of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas, and for the terrorist attack in Nice, France. Obama has lowered flags 68 times during his term in office, more than any other president in U.S. history. Some were for the deaths of dignitaries, such as Nancy Reagan and Antonin Scalia, but most were for tragedies, from the shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino to the attacks in Brussels and Paris. The tragedies are creating some national nervousness: Forty-nine percent of Americans age 50-64 worry “a great deal” about a terrorist attack, according to a Gallup poll taken in early March; the number rises to 58 percent for people 65 and older.

And that anxiety—about everything from ISIS to Zika—can affect us not just emotionally, but physically. In a study conducted by Ben-Gurion University in Israel, 55 chronic-pain patients completed questionnaires before and after a three-week missile attack on the southern part of the country. The results showed that watching media coverage of the attacks increased the intensity of their pain.

“When we’re bombarded with photos, news items and personal stories, our brains go from understanding that an attack has very low odds of happening to some odds of happening,” says Kayt Sukel, author of The Art of Risk. “And that’s enough to cause fear.”

”Whether you’re struggling with short-term worries or a more serious condition, fear shouldn’t dictate your life.”

So when is too much fear a problem?

Our reactions to tragic events—sadness, anger, worry—are usually normal anxiety, says Neal Sideman, a California-based coach and teacher who helps people recover from panic disorder and agoraphobia (and who recovered from those conditions himself in 1998). It can even be useful: It’s what keeps us from picking up a snake—kind of like Spider-Man’s “spider sense” that alerts him to danger.

See also: Bouncing Back From Life-Shattering World Events

“If I say, ‘I’m worried about terrorism, and these news programs get me upset, but I can go to work, see friends, go to the gym,’ that means I’m stressed, but I’m functioning,” says Sideman. “That’s not an anxiety disorder. But if I’m so worried that I stay home, and I call in sick, then anxiety is interfering with my life. That’s a disorder.”

One way to tell the difference: People with anxiety disorders may be disturbed by broadcasts of terrorist attacks for weeks or months, rather than days, says Edmund J. Bourne, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. “I discourage my clients with all types of anxiety disorders, and especially post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), from watching TV or online broadcasts of terrorist attacks and shootings.” (Note: If your fears are seriously hindering your ability to function, you should consult a professional. The ADAA offers a directory of licensed therapists.)

Whether you’re struggling with short-term worries or a more serious condition, fear shouldn’t dictate your life. Excessive caution can even create more anxiety. Think of someone who avoids public places after a mass shooting—refusing to go to a movie theater, for example. “It teaches your brain that this is good behavior,” says Kissen. “But millions of people see movies. You need to face the fear and then break out of it. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I see people do it every day.” Here’s how.

Put the Risks in Perspective

Your odds of dying in a terrorist attack in the United States are one in 20 million. That’s right, one in 20 million. You’re more likely to die from a lightning strike or from drowning in a bathtub—also rare events—than from a suicide bomber.

“When we get emotional,” says Sideman, “logic goes out the window.” To show how our brains work, Sideman gives this example: Imagine you see a news story that repeatedly shows footage of a plane crash. If you’re getting ready to fly, you might think … my plane could actually crash. It sounds like a 50-50 chance: It could crash or it couldn’t. But your odds of dying in a plane crash are one in 11 million.

Sideman calls this a mistake in thinking. A good way to address it, he says, is to write down the odds, which reinforces the improbability. With terrorism, jot down that number: 1 in 20,000,000. “Use all the zeroes,” he says.

Another mistake in thinking is “confusing the bad with the likely.” Take shark attacks. “If I went to the beach and was attacked by a shark, that would be bad,” says Sideman, co-chair of the ADAA’s Public Education Committee. “But just because it’s bad, does that make it likely? Maybe 10 people on the planet die each year from shark attacks. Compare that to the number who die from cigarette smoking—about 5 million. So you answer these mistakes by putting them in perspective. And then you say, ‘I guess it’s OK for me to go to the beach.’ That’s what we want to encourage people to do. To live their lives.”

Is bad news hurting your mood? Turn off the TV and go for a walk: Five minutes of exercise can help ease anxiety., Credit: Paolo Cipriani

Become More Resilient

You can increase resilience—it’s like exercising to strengthen your body,” says Rachel Noble, a therapist with Advantia Health in Maryland. “Every time you make the best of a bad situation, you fortify your optimism. It’s like a mental workout.” To improve resilience, the Mayo Clinic encourages people to build strong relationships, find purpose and solve problems—not avoid them. People who learn to cope with trauma may do better the next time they’ve already been exposed to a traumatic situation.

Positive thinking can also build resilience. In a study conducted by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers interviewed 750 Vietnam veterans who were prisoners of war. The soldiers were chosen because they showed extreme resilience during six to eight years of traumatic captivity. Their secret? Despite the challenges, they remained optimistic during their ordeal, which made them less like to suffer from PTSD. A positive outlook can also help your heart, boost your immune system and lengthen your life, according to a review of 80 studies by scientists at the University of Rochester.

One way to increase positive thinking is by keeping agratitude journal, logging the good things that happen during the day, says Joseph Hullett, M.D., national medical director with Optum Behavioral Solutions. “It can be extremely effective in fostering a more realistic and balanced appraisal of the world,” he says. Another simple exercise is to count the smiles you see during the day rather than the frowns. Smiles, says Hullett, “are usually much more common.”

See also: Yes, You Can Teach Yourself To Be Brave

Feel Your Fears

If you’re anxious, don’t ignore it. Schedule some “worry time,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. Make an appointment with yourself once or twice a day to review your fears. “That way, when worries come up, you say. ‘I’ll talk to you at 5:00,’” he says. This frees you to concentrate on more productive pursuits. “Worry is not constructive—it is debilitating and not how we solve problems. So while curtailing it in tragic situations may seem unfeeling, it is an important technique for one’s well-being.”

Sideman suggests a similar strategy. When you’re anxious, stop and feel those emotions before calming or distracting yourself rather than suppressing your fears. “You’re not doing anything at that moment to lower anxiety,” he says. “It’s kind of the opposite: Allowing yourself to feel that difficult emotion. There’s a lot of evidence that this is helpful, because you’re not putting effort into not feeling something.”

Exercise Your Body—and Relax Your Mind

Even five minutes of aerobic activity can help ease anxiety, according to the ADAA. That’s because exercise increases the production of endorphins, “the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters,” as the Mayo Clinic puts it. Endorphins help us relax and improve our sleep, both of which reduce stress.

“When you exercise regularly, you feel better,” says William Bonfield, chief medical officer for internal affairs with Optum. “You feel healthier and you feel stronger. That affects your emotional state as well.” Aerobic exercise seems particularly useful for lowering tensions, Sideman says: “Whether it’s a short walk or going to the gym, it helps us process anxiety and stress. We might still get upset, but we bounce back more quickly.”

”Your odds of dying from a terrorist attack in the U.S. is one in 20 million”

Take a Timeout From Media

Our exposure to news used to be limited. We’d read a morning newspaper and watch Walter Cronkite at night. Now we’re bombarded by 24-hour news on televisions, tablets, radios and smartphones. Inescapable screens—in elevators, at gas pumps and airport gates—blast the latest headlines. Social media only adds to the barrage. “A lot of the anxiety we’re experiencing comes from this nonstop access to information,” says Kissen. “It keeps our minds on constant alert.”

How do you solve it? Set limits on your screen time. Turn off the TV. Turn off your phone. Read a book. Go for a walk. “Stay connected to others and avoid withdrawing,” says Hullett. “Positives will force out the negatives.”

Or do nothing at all. Sit quietly, let your thoughts go and be present in the moment. Meditation can produce endorphins in the same way exercise does, the ADAA notes. Other relaxation techniques such as acupuncture, massage therapy and even deep breathing can too. To practice mindfulness, Kissen recommends and, both of which offer simple exercises.

You might be surprised at the results. On a recent trip to Spain, Bonfield and his wife were people-watching at a plaza in Grenada. “We noticed that there were cellphones, but it wasn’t like here where everyone was on their cellphone all the time,” he says. “People were actually talking to each other. So I think we can make a conscious choice and pay attention to other things.”

Communicate Calmly With Your Kids

Discussing high-profile tragedies with your children is important, but not if you’re feeling angry or afraid. Those emotions can confuse your child, says Chansky.“Instead of listening to what you’re saying, your children will be worried about your distress and feel responsible to calm you down,” she says.

Discuss bad events like terrorist attacks with your kids. It’s better for them to get information from you rather than from other children., Credit: Thomas Barwick

Once you’re ready, ask your kids if they have questions. Find out what they know. It’s better for children to get information from you rather than other kids, says Chansky. Tell them what happened and reassure them that the authorities are restoring safety. Talk about it as a family and discuss ways to cope with the fears.

To help reduce anxiety, Chansky suggests what she calls “fact checking.” Ask your kids to make a list of negative thoughts and then, as if taking a test at school, to scrutinize each sentence. Are the thoughts true? “Your worry is saying x,” Chansky writes in her book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. “[But] if worry took a test in school, would worry be right, or would worry get all the answers wrong?”

This type of exercise helps children to view a situation more accurately—and it works for adults, too. If you’re feeling anxious, write it down, says Kissen. An example: A man just came on the train and looks threatening. Next, pretend you’re a lawyer and argue the counterpoint. Maybe he’s having a bad day. Maybe the weather made him grumpy. “You don’t even have to believe it,” says Kissen. “You’re just providing a different perspective.” As Sideman says, if most terrorists have brown eyes, does that mean all brown-eyed people are terrorists? Techniques like this reduce our intellectual false alarms.

Turn Negatives Into Positives

If world news makes you feel like Charleston Heston in Planet of the Apes—“It’s a madhouse! A maaadhouse!”—finds some small but positive ways to take action. “Usually, when we feel helpless, we want to regain control, whether it’s laying flowers at a grave or volunteering to clean up after a disaster,” says Noble. After the Orlando shooting, one of Noble’s clients, who struggles with high anxiety, found solace from writing a daily Facebook post about each of the victims. Other ideas include hosting a fundraiser for survivors or collecting food and clothing for rescue organizations.

Such actions are equally helpful for children. “Encourage kids to draw a picture,” says Noble. “Or help them plant a tree in memory of a victim.”

While all of these techniques can help you fight your fears, the best antidote to news-related anxiety may be the simplest: Just live your life. “Create a life that matters,” says Kissen. “Volunteer to facilitate a dialogue between different people. Join an interfaith group. Or just walk your dog and create happiness, which trickles out to the universe. Learn to tolerate risk in the service of life.”

Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, a web series that will debut in 2017.