Coping In The World We Live In: Managing Anxiety In A World of Terror

Just a few weeks ago the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States took place, followed by multiple terrorist attacks around the globe. Some of the saddest events in modern history, and unfortunately not the first and probably not the last time such senseless events will occur. People used to set out on an activity with thoughts of whether or not they will enjoy themselves, or who they might see. It is no longer that simple.

Do you find yourself or do you know someone who wonders about whether or not it is safe to go to the theater? Do you find yourself panicking when the subway car stalls or a "police investigation" is announced? You are not alone with these thoughts. They are not irrational but unfortunately a reflection of the world that we live in.

What Can I Do?

So how can I manage my worries about all of the violence in the world? Shouldn't I be anxious about them if these are real concerns and are not irrational fears?

There is a difference between feeling worried or even anxious, and letting that worry or anxiety control your life. A certain amount of anxiety is healthy and helpful. It means that you are aware, alert, and protective of yourself. But if that anxiety prevents you from functioning on a daily basis or is debilitating in some way, it likely makes sense to address it.

There are ways to manage your anxiety about terrorism in our world. Telling yourself that your feelings are invalid is NOT one of them. So lets start there. Acknowledge your feelings and be respectful of them.

And then try some or all of the following:

1. Connect to the Present Moment:

Most of the time people's anxieties about life threatening events are anticipatory. People worry about the "what ifs" of the future. During these moments of anxiety there is a big disconnect between the feared future and what actually is occurring in the present. The reality is that you are most likely safe in that moment, otherwise you probably wouldn't be having the time to think about the future. In that exact moment you are breathing, you are safe, and there are many things going on around you that you are likely not paying much attention to.

Something helpful can be engaging in activities with the intention of connecting to the present moment by using all of your senses.

Try and pay attention to what you see around you. Not just on a superficial level but with attention to detail. Notice all of the colors you see, the different materials around you, the different people, and the landscape.

Focus on the sounds you hear around you, from as loud as a honking horn to as subtle as the gentle breeze. Are you really listening to the person you are talking to?

Do you notice any smells? Do you feel anything on your skin? Are you holding a bag or sitting on a chair? Perhaps you could try feeling your feet on the ground? It can be so easy to disconnect even from our own bodies.

Try as much as possible to notice all the various sensations that your body can feel right in the present moment. This focus on the now can occupy your attention and eliminate space for your anxious anticipatory thoughts.

2. Acknowledge Your Fears:

Working to manage anxiety does not mean trying to ignore your feelings or trying to push them away. The more one tries to push feelings away, the more they usually find themselves to the forefront of your mind.

It is important to find a safe space or a community in which you can feel free to talk about these fears. This community can be one's family, friends, partner, support group, church group, therapist, peers etc. It could be anyone that you feel will listen to you. It could also be yourself, through your own journaling or reflections.

Ignoring your fears is not helpful, similarly to dwelling on them. These are two extreme ends which ultimately contribute to the fears really remaining at the center of your attention, and perhaps even negatively impacting your behaviors.

It can be quite helpful to acknowledge the fears, give them some space by sharing them, and then moving on after. If you find yourself wanting to think about them after you have given them their space, perhaps you can try thinking about them as a passing cloud. Clouds are there but we don't pay much attention to them and they eventually float away. Try and hold that in mind. Your fear may be there but do not attend to it too much and remind yourself that if you start engaging in a task and try to connect to the present moment, it will go away.

3. Anxiety Does Not Have to Dictate Your Actions:

When feeling anxious or fearful, it can be easy to forget that our actions are always our choices, and we may inadvertently give our control away to fear. People can feel paralyzed by worry and may avoid going to places or doing things that they wish to do because of this anxiety. Obviously it is important to use reason and logic when making these choices. If you are anxious about traveling to a country because there is a civil war going on there, then you probably shouldn't go. However, if the anxiety is telling you not to go to work or not to attend a social event, and there is no known logical reason why you should not go, then perhaps you need to think about whether or not this is helping your quality of life, relationships, and wellbeing. 

It can be difficult to stomach the reality that we really cannot always know whether something dangerous will happen or not. This not knowing and not having control is what can drive so much of our anxiety. However, perhaps it can be helpful to try and think about what you can control. If there is something you want to do, like attend a party, you can control that. It may feel like fear is in control, but only if you give your control up to that fear. Perhaps you can try and think about "in spite of anxiety or fear." I will attend the party in spite of my anxiety. Again of course using logical reasoning. If you have reason to believe there is an actual danger at this party then do not go. But if you are certain your anxiety is not warranted for a particular event, then exercise your control and attend it if it is important to you.

4. Asking For Help:

Sometimes you may find that the aforementioned tips are helpful but you would like a space to discuss your anxiety further. You can always reach out to a mental health professional at any time, even years after the traumatic event has occurred.

Sometimes the aforementioned tips will not work, and sometimes you may not be able to even try them. In this case it is imperative to seek professional help.

Experiencing a traumatic event can sometimes cause debilitating anxiety, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, social isolation, avoidance of certain people or places, or even physical symptoms. There is help! Contact a mental health professional as soon as possible.

If you feel like you might harm yourself or someone else, contact 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.  

It is important to note that these suggestions should not be mistaken for individually tailored advice. These are just some general tips and may not be helpful to all. If you are already in psychotherapy or have your own mental health provider, it is important to discuss these tips with that provider before trying them. 

If you find yourself struggling to manage stress, anxiety or other challenging emotions that may be interfering with your daily functioning, it might be best to reach out for some professional help. You do not have to suffer silently. If you have general questions about therapy, you may find the FAQ page on my website useful.