To Fear or Not to Fear After the Boston Marathon Bombing

Aurora, Tuscon, Newtown, and now Boston. In light of so many terrorizing incidences, from a psychological standpoint, it's normal -- and healthy -- to feel fear.
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Do Not Cross sign board.
Do Not Cross sign board.

Fear has gotten a bad name lately.

"Terrorists want you to be afraid," some are saying in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing. "Don't let them win."

That's the view argued in a blog post for The Atlantic by security technologist Bruce Schneier, whom I found myself debating recently on HuffPost Live.

Aurora, Tuscon, Newtown, and now Boston. In light of so many terrorizing incidences, from a psychological standpoint, it's normal -- and healthy -- to feel fear. Of course you don't want to wallow in fear or let it stop you from getting on a subway, going to the movies, or visiting a city park. But letting an emotion like fear emerge naturally is transformative and can even motivate constructive action.

I also disagreed with Bruce when he said such terrorism events are rare, and "We're safe in our restaurants." Hopefully, but not necessarily. Violence is increasing as more people are frustrated, deprived, angry, out for revenge, and not checking their impulses.

Repressing fear is not the answer.

Here are some tips for coping:

  • Accept reality. You're not getting back to normal, but to the "new normal." Life is not the same. Terrorists are among us, in theaters, shopping malls, and schools. We don't know when they will strike. Of course you can't be on high alert every moment, but neither should you let your awareness lag. Pay attention to people or events that make you wince or feel uneasy, and trust your senses. "When you sense (as well as see) something, say something."

  • Fear and anxiety are emotions we may not like but they can be useful -- in moderation. Psychological research on anxiety and test performance, for example, shows that too much anxiety can paralyze you (keeping you from essential studying or thinking clearly), too little anxiety makes you lackadaisical (so you might not study hard enough), while a moderate amount motivates you to prepare.[1],[2]
  • Review your personal experiences of victimization. Your reactions to terrorism are fueled by times when you've been a target of even much milder injustice. Ask yourself, "When have I been bullied, cheated, betrayed, or sideswiped by someone else's cruelty?" "Who are the "evil" one/s who have wronged me?" Identifying these people and experiences helps you monitor your fears and feelings, and gain some control.
  • Achieve a balance in your day. I love the suggestions by editor of HuffPost's Becoming Fearless editor Elizabeth Kuster on the HuffPost Live panel about seeking out calm and hope in these scary times Take stress breaks, nurture yourself, seek out and give love, start your day joyfully. Luxuriate in a bath, walk your dog, watch a funny movie. A viewer posted that she knits. Host Abby Huntsman gave herself a break from the traumautic news by turning on the cooking channel.
  • Explore your views of "good" and "evil." I recall many college nights in my friend's dorm room at Smith College debating whether we agreed with the founder of modern political philosophy Thomas Hobbes that life is "nasty, brutish and short," or with British philosopher John Locke that the nature of man is essentially good. It's calming to trust the latter, but especially in light of recent events, psychologists -- and all of us -- have to admit that there are humans amongst us capable of monstrous acts.
  • When it comes to facing fear, no one size fits all. I didn't agree with the HuffPost Live panelists who said shut off TV about the trauma. Personal style differs. Indeed some of us benefit from limits and prefer to get on with life but others can find media coverage helps alleviate fears. Neither is right or wrong, unless the latter ignore responsibilities or get emotionally overwhelmed, or the former bury their head in denial.
  • Use this latest act of terrorism as a teachable moment for kids. Their fears are normal, whether it's the bogeyman, a stern teacher, school exam, barking dog, or a shooting madman. Be truthful that things in life can be scary. Help their feelings of vulnerability -- after 20 children were massacred at school and an innocent 8-year-old was murdered at a marathon -- by building their confidence. Compliment simple successes, whether tossing a ball or finishing homework. Encourage identification with a hero, like a character from Star Wars. Explain that some people's anger gets vastly out of control and help them learn ways to handle their own angry feelings.
  • Embrace official efforts towards more security. Critics claim cops posted at hotels and city landmarks are a feeble attempt by authorities to appear like they are "doing something." Psychologically, any effort to ensure safety is reassuring. Personally, I felt calmer seeing two uniform police in front of the big hotel on my block.
  • Make your voice known to political representatives. Outrage over gun violence fueled a Congressional bill about background checks being required for gun purchase. Though the bill was recently defeated, the fight remains. Getting involved in issues involving public safety can give you a sense of control.
  • I like the Sandy Hook Promise of families who lost children in that massacre: "Our hearts are broken; Our spirit is not." To that, I would add: Our safety may be shaky and our innocence crushed, but our awareness is heightened and our collective caring reaffirmed.

    A comforting thought to ease fear is that the bad guys will get caught, and the good guys will win in the end.


    [1] Yerkes, R.M. & Dodson, J.D. (November 1908) "The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation," Article first published online: 7 Oct 2004. DOI: 10.1002/cne.920180503. The Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, Volume 18, Issue 5.

    [2] Broadhurst, P. L. Emotionality and the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
    Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol 54(5), Nov 1957, 345-352.

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