Terrorists Want Us to Feel Insecure - 5 Ways to Triumph

5 ways to keep the terrorists from winning.

Posted Nov 20, 2015

“I don’t want to see or hear anything more about terrorism.”

“I’m scared all the time.”

“I’ve cancelled my vacation.”

“It’s time to put this stuff behind us and move on with our lives.”

“I’m moving my family somewhere safe.”

“I’m not going to let the terrorists win. I’m going to go about my life as always.”

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. In the past week, since the terrorist attacks in Paris, not only clients, but my friends, colleagues and family have expressed some or all of these feelings. Feelings of helplessness, anxiety, fear and anger have floated in and around almost every conversation — even when they aren’t put into words and sometimes even when we’re not conscious that they’re there. Some have spoken of taking action — moving to a safer place, changing or canceling vacation plans, joining the military. Others have said that they feel that nothing will make a difference. And some simply had no thoughts, no ways of talking about what might or might not be going on.

This is what terrorism does to us. Terrorism is frightening by definition. It’s meant to frighten us. The goal of terrorists is to keep their enemies feeling off-balance and fearful. Anxiety and fear in the wake of terrorist attacks are therefore normal, and perhaps even healthy, when they mobilize us to take realistic precautions, and when we support one another and bond during crises. But Bessel van der Kolk, who has written numerous books on the effects of trauma, says that when we live in a constant state of fear and helplessness, we lose not only a sense of well-being, but even a sense of our very selves.

Anxiety can lead to unity and a sense of bonding among the victimized. But it can also lead to divisions and attacks among ourselves, which of course simply promote the terrorists’ goal. They want us to be confused, frightened and disorganized. And they love it when we begin to hate one another.  

Anxiety can help us avoid dangerous situations. But it can feed on itself and make everyday life painful. I know for myself, having recently been in Paris in the very place where some of the attacks took place, I find myself worrying about what if — what if I had been there last week instead of a month ago? I worry about friends and loved ones still there. This is natural. But such worries by themselves don’t keep anyone safe. 

I am not a politician or a military strategist. But I know from years of work as a psychotherapist that there are some things you can do to help yourself and your loved ones deal with these divisive and disruptive fears.

1. Talk about it. Trauma and terror make us feel isolated and alone. This too is one of the goals of terrorism. The more you can put your feelings into words and share the experience with others, the more manageable it will all feel. This does not, however, mean watching endless hours of the same footage of attacks and horrors on television. Those images will not change, and watching them will not lower your levels of anxiety and fear. But sharing your thoughts and feelings with other people will make you feel less alone, less isolated, and therefore less frightened.

2. Take some meaningful action. Yes, it’s important to find some realistic ways to protect yourself and your family appropriately and reasonably. But there are other actions that can also make you feel better, even though they may not protect you directly from a terrorist attack. Join a group. Contribute to an organization that you feel is fighting some of the problems that lead to terrorism — whether directly or indirectly. Keep your goals reality-based. For example, joining a group to raise money for needy neighbors — for instance to help defray the cost of heating during the winter — or building homes for the homeless or working in a food pantry doesn’t stop terrorism. But it is a tiny step in the direction of maintaining connections among people who might not otherwise feel that the world is a good place.

And selfishly? There is evidence that helping others, in whatever small ways we can do it, makes us feel better.

3. Again, and I can’t say it enough, be realistic. Don’t expect yourself to change the world. The problems that we are facing now have built up over a long period of time. We will not see them resolved quickly. Taking small steps towards solving small pieces of the problem is all that any of us can do.

4. Find ways to take some pleasure in life. None of us knows if we are going to be hit by a bus or develop a life-threatening disease in the near future. We also don’t know if we’ll be victims of terrorist attacks, although I imagine there is a greater likelihood for many of us that we might be victims of a car accident. But most of us don’t walk around worrying about either illness or traffic fatalities. Again, it is important to listen to your anxiety in order to take realistic precautions. But no matter what the future holds, it also does seem better to try to find some ways to truly enjoy the here and now.

Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way: “The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don't wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.” Marcia Linehan tells clients in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy to find activities that bring pleasure and distraction. Go to an entertaining movie. Read a fun book. Take an art class. Learn to knit. Spend time with friends, family, or loved ones. No, none of these activities will necessarily make the world a better place or you a better person. But it is these tiny, pleasurable activities that make our lives rich, full and even meaningful.

5. Do one thing for someone else. Call your mother or your grandfather. Talk to a lonely neighbor. Run an errand for someone. After 9/11, one of the things I heard over and over again was that doing a kindness for another person made people feel like they mattered again. It gave them a sense of strength in the face of unbearable loss and helplessness.

We may not be able to change the world in a sudden, powerful sweep. But we can make tiny changes and have small, almost insignificant interactions that will impact one other person. And maybe that tiny interchange will have a little ripple effect, like a tiny pebble dropped into a pond. Enough pebbles, enough tiny ripples, and who knows what we might accomplish.

Other readings:

Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation
Marcia Linehan, DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd Edition
Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Body and Mind in the Healing of Trauma