Coping With Terrorism - APA Guidelines
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Updated On: December 19, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001
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Guidelines From the American
Psychological Association (APA)
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Terrorism threatens a society by instilling fear and helplessness in
its citizens. It seeks to hold a society or government hostage by fear of
destruction and harm.
When terrorist acts occur, people generally look for ways to cope with
the acute stress and trauma. Terrorism evokes a fundamental fear of
helplessness. The violent actions are random, unprovoked, and intentional,
and often are targeted at defenseless citizens. Trying to cope with the
irrational information that is beyond normal comprehension can set off a
chain of psychological events culminating in feelings of fear,
helplessness, vulnerability, and grief.
Xenophobia -- fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners -- can be
heightened under a terrorist threat and can become a social and
psychological danger. The fear generated by terrorism can be exacerbated
by a populationís diversity if there is distrust between groups,
categories and classification of citizens. People need to recognize that
diversity in a population is often an opportunity for unity and strength.
There are members of our diverse society who have experienced past
terrorist incidents. The knowledge and experience they have gained from
surviving and coping with these incidents can make them a valuable
resource on how to cope and how to offer assistance to others.
Who Is Affected?
After a terrorist attack, many people are impacted. People who have
experienced the trauma often fall into the following categories:
|Survivors of past traumatic events (e.g. refugees of wars,
terrorism, or torture, and survivors of domestic violence, child
abuse, or street crime). These individuals may have a heightened sense
|People who personally witnessed or were victims of the terrorist
|People who experience traumatization from learning of relatives,
friends and acquaintances who were subject to the violence, or from
exposure to repeated media accounts of the trauma.|
What You May Experience Following a Terrorist Attack
People who have experienced or witnessed a terrorist attack may go into
a state of acute stress reaction. You may feel one or all of these
|Recurring thoughts of the incident
|Becoming afraid of everything, not leaving the house, or isolating
|Stopping usual functioning, no longer maintaining daily routines
|Survivor guilt -- "Why did I survive? I should have done
|Tremendous sense of loss
|Reluctance to express your feelings, losing a sense of control over
Coping with the Trauma
- Identify the feelings that you may be experiencing. Understand that
your feelings are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
- Remember that you have overcome adversity and trauma in the past.
Try to remember what you did that helped you overcome the fear and
helplessness in that situation.
- Talk to others about your fears. Itís okay to ask for help.
Workplaces may convene small groups with an EAP counselor or other
mental health counselor so people can share feelings.
- Make efforts to maintain your usual routine.
- Think positively. Realize that things will get better. Be realistic
about the time it takes to feel better.
- Recognize that the nature of terrorist attacks creates fear and
uncertainty about the future. Continue to do the things in your life
that you enjoy. Donít get preoccupied with the things you cannot
control to the extent that they prevent you from living your normal
- Know the actions our government is taking to combat terrorism and
restore safety and security. Recognize that trained officials
throughout the country are mobilized to prevent, prepare for and
respond to terrorist attacks.
- Limit exposure to media coverage.
- Tips for helping children cope:
|Encourage children to say how they are feeling about the event.
|Ask children what they have seen, heard or experienced.
|Assure children that their parents are taking care of them and
will continue to help them deal with anything that makes them feel
|Help children recognize when they have shown courage in meeting
a new scary situation and accomplished a goal despite hardship or
barriers. Instill a sense of empowerment.
|Let children know that institutions of democracy are still in
place and our government is intact. (It can also be helpful for
adults to realize this.)
|Know that it is possible for children to experience vicariously
the traumatization from the terrorist attack (e.g. watching TV
coverage, overhearing adult conversations).|
If you are having trouble coping with the terrorist attacks, consider
seeking help from a psychologist or other mental health professional.
There are many ways to feel traumatized by terrorist incidents.
Psychologists and other licensed mental health professionals are trained
to help people cope and take positive steps toward managing their feelings
and behaviors. Click here
for additional resources from APA for help with trauma
This fact sheet was made possible by help from the following APA
members: Rona M. Fields, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and
professor of sociology. She has researched and written on stress and
violence of terrorism in societies and situations of change and upheaval.
She is a frequent consultant on terrorism and its effects and has worked
in Northern Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, South America and Asia. Joe
Margolin, Ph.D., is a Clinical - Social Psychologist who has worked on
the social stresses of terrorism. He has worked with victims of terrorism
in Israel, Latin America and the United States.
Copyright © 2001 American
Psychological Association. All Rights Reserved.