We now live in a world where war is no longer limited to a geographical location. In past times of war, you knew where the armies were, and civilians typically had time to escape their path. In modern times, war has taken on a fluid form because the enemy is unidentifiable and sympathizers are just as dangerous as militias. With many countries waging war against terrorism, the theater in which war is fought has changed. Now the terrorists can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. The unpredictable nature of this has added a new level of stress to people around the world.
In light of recent events going on in Europe, I felt it was important to address how terrorism impacts mental health, specifically anxiety. In a nutshell anxiety is an unreasonable level of worry about things, typically things that have not actually happened yet. People who suffer from anxiety are consumed by thoughts of what if? This can range from realistic fears of money management, fears of what others think of them, fears of employment or even fears of developing an illness. Sometimes these fears are rooted in past experiences like being afraid of a car accident after having been in one, but sometimes these can be irrational fears like being short on money and thinking that you’ll end up evicted and homeless.
Terrorism requires fear to be effective, it is a driving force behind its use. When there is terrorism, attacks are unpredictable. It plays on peoples fears of the unknown. It could be anyone, anytime, anywhere. These variables can be very overwhelming to individuals who already are dealing with anxiety issues, and to individuals who never had any problems with anxiety. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear people saying in the past they were always fine but now they are feeling very nervous, and anxious about the increase in world terrorism. Suddenly people are spending more time reading or watching the news. They are fixated on what is being reported, and concerned that the threat of additional terror attacks in their neighborhood are a real possibility. People may reconsider trips to public places, or after watching the French raid apartment building the sanctity of ones home seems lost.
With lots of things going on in the news, it is easy to get lost in the possibilities and fears that people might conjure up. A heightened sense of awareness is normal and a good thing. However, when it becomes consuming and overwhelming its time to focus on regaining control. Here are some basic starting points.
- Cut back on news exposure – This week has been full of constantly changing news stories about new developments. Its easy to get sucked into watching CNN and waiting for breaking information to be released. But this constant exposure can be overwhelming and exhausting. If you find yourself obsessively checking online news, or watching the news channels limit your time to 30 minutes a day. The news anchors are experts at delivering information in a quick concise way. If you watch longer than 30 minutes you will begin to hear repetitive information and its time to stop. Same goes for checking websites. Check the news websites once a day. Although it may be different for everyone, I’d suggest watching the news when you wake up. This allows you to catch up on what happened yesterday and overnight. It then allows you to move past this and start your day. Avoid reading the news before bed, as this can increase your anxiety levels and make a good nights sleep difficult.
- Distractions – this is a short term solution and I don’t recommend it long term for people with anxiety. However, if you find yourself very anxious, ruminating over the stories of terrorism and fears of experiencing an attack try to keep your focus on something else. Physical activities are a great distraction that benefit your body. Play a sport, go to the gym, or walk the dog. Anything that keeps you busy and focused on what you are doing is less time you will spend worrying.I recommend doing something new so that the learning and novelty will consume more of your mind. If you never learned to play chess, now would be a great time to learn.
- Practice Mindfulness – Psychology Today defines mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience”. One thing I always teach my patients is when you spend your time thinking about the past, it can lead to depression. When you spend your time thinking about the future it can lead to anxiety. Focus on the present and you will find happiness. Being mindful means living in the moment, being aware of your presence and not judging your feelings or thoughts. Notice that you are feeling angry and then let those feelings go. Notice that you are feeling anxious, then let those feelings go. Pay attention to what you are doing, and focus your attention on what it feels like. A great activity to start with is coloring. Yup, adult coloring books are the newest fad, but the activity itself can be very healthy. Take some time to color, focus on the repetitive movements of the crayons, notice the compatibility of your color choices, and feel the increased serenity of performing a simple and enjoyable task.
These activities will come easer to some, and will require practice for others. Either is ok and both are beneficial. You will either feel better practicing these techniques or you will refocus your mind away from the consuming thoughts of world terror. Seems like a win win situation.