I really debated whether to write on this topic, mostly because by now probably every other person has said their piece. For better or worse. But in the aftermath of the events over the weekend and in the context of the horrors of what happens across the world on a regular basis, perhaps there is a couple of things we need to be mindful of.
From what I’ve read, the term ‘terrorism’ can be a difficult thing to concretely define. In the psychology world though, we often refer to terrorism through the concept of ‘psychological warfare’. The mechanism of action to terrorise the society may be a little different but the purpose remains the same. I’ll attempt to explain it. Terrorism is a form of political violence that is meant to send a message about a particular organisation or idea through violent victimisation or destruction. By design these acts induce terror and psychic fear (which is sometimes indiscriminate), but aids the activity of achieving maximum publicity and amplifying force (Marshall, 2005).
Terrorism and psychological warfare have been around for as long as anyone can remember. Throughout history, pretty much every military conflict has in one way or another involved some form of psychological warfare to disadvantage the opponent. But in today’s world, the rules of engagement in this type of mental battle have changed.
Because of the advances in technology, we have no idea what we might see, hear or learn when we turn on the television, pick up our phone or engage with our friends through social media. Unlike historical military battles, the effects of psychological warfare aren’t limited to the people involved or the countries and communities in which they took place. Nowadays we can all, in one way or another, become involved. Images of terror can trigger a visceral response no matter how close or far away from home the event happened. And the impact has the potential to be even greater too. To instil a sense of fear that is much greater than the actual threat itself.
Sometimes I like to think of each person having a psychological bubble around them. The bubble is made up of all their strengths, their range of coping skills, their beliefs and values and their past lived experiences and history. It’s a protective barrier that can help each person, in its own unique way, navigate through their experience of the world. And when things happen, the bubble reacts and transforms in different ways.
I spoke to a number of people over the weekend, who were feeling distressed about the news of what had happened in a foreign country half way around the world. And I felt it too. I felt sad and shocked and scared. And this is natural. As awful as it is, it’s natural to feel disturbed. And that’s because the majority of us are all beautiful human beings and in our bubbles we have the strength to feel empathy. Professor Haroun from the University of California says: “The human reaction is to put yourself in the situation, because most of us have good mental health and the capacity to empathise. We put ourselves in the shoes of the unfortunate.” So in essence, because we have the capacity for compassion for others, events such as these hurt.
Not only can it trouble the feelings in our bubble, witnessing an act of terror can also disrupt our belief system. There was a time when I was working closely with patients who were seeking asylum in Australia. It was not until then that I realised that how l had been so fiercely protected by the belief systems and values that were inside my bubble. I was fully aware that not everyone had the same values and social niceties as I did and I felt that as a result of my life experiences I had a reasonable grasp on reality, but when I heard the stories of extreme terror from these patients my bubble, my beliefs and values about the world I live in, became significantly challenged and violated. My bubble was significantly disrupted. And the result was an immense fear. Fearful in the sense that I was living in an uncaring and unsafe world because I was no longer ignorant to how low the bar of humanity was. And it took quite some time to learn to cope with that. To get my bubble back in balance.
The research suggests that the key to coping with psychological terror is to find a healthy balance. And most people do. Studies have shown that even in extreme disasters, the majority of people do not become incapable of functioning. While there may be initial shock and distress; people call on their personal strengths and those of their family and community. And for the most part, people recover and return to their normal activities.
We may not be able to prevent all attacks that occur, but there are some things we can do to protect ourselves and those we care about to find a healthy balance, protect our psychological bubble and ensure that we don’t become over-anxious about the possibility of terrorism. Because we are human, our decision-making skills can be impaired in times of extreme stress. So try and stay grounded in reality and seek out the reliable sources of news and information. And where possible don’t rush to make quick judgements on what might be incomplete or inaccurate information.
The Mental Health Association of NSW offers a number of practical suggestions to assist people living with the fear of terrorist attacks or other human-made disasters. These include:
- Find out where to get help in the event of an emergency
- Give and receive emotional support
- Keep in touch with the people you care about
- Offer help to others in the community
Additional suggestions can be found here. It is also possible that people with pre-existing mental health conditions may experience a worsening of symptoms in response to such events. Keep an eye out for any such loved ones and where possible try and provide additional support.
A strategy that has worked well for me in the past in ensuring my bubble remains strong and resilient is to seek out the hope. Hope is often the antithesis of fear. And so I find that by discovering (and sometimes it’s quite a search) the things that come from a devastating event that can add some hope back in to to my bubble helps to get my psychological health back in balance.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." Fred Rogers.
So whilst our news feeds on social media, the opinion pieces on blogs and the background natter of the television continue to remind us of humanity’s atrocities, please look after yourself my friends. Try and keep your psychological bubble balanced, healthy and strong.
If you need to chat to someone:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636