Minimize Your Response to Disaster and Terrorism

Preventing Terrorism from Terrorizing You


Once again tragedy has struck. This time over 130 dead and hundreds more injured physically and mentally in Brussels, targets of hate that neither they nor their families deserved. Needless grief has been heaped upon them. And the world community is outraged. We are as helpless to assuage the grief the Belgians and those related to the victims are feeling as we are to predict and prevent every act of terrorism.

These events leave anxiety and also depression in their wake, even in those of us who live thousands of miles away. The inability to predict a terrorist attack raises levels of vigilance, especially among those who monitor internet and phone communications for signs of plots. Most of us ordinary citizens are not daily vigilant for attacks; however, our anxiety can be even more intense because we do not know if we might be the victim of an attack, and we do not have any means to participate in the actions that could be helpful.

Inability to do anything helpful can increase depression over the state of the world. The depressed brain has trouble getting out of negativity. It is already set up to notice more negativity by structure (circuits that prefer to notice negatives by their size), lack of chemistry that balances emotion with logical thought and insufficient neurotransmitters that prompt positive or optimistic feelings. When a disaster strikes falling into depression can be mitigated by having a useful role to play in recovery from the disaster. A scene such as the airport bombing in Brussels leaves us in a negative mood but without recourse to handle the event in any practical manner.

When a person is depressed, the negative brain broods on themes of being helpless and situations being hopeless. The brooding has a problematic function. There is some research suggesting that rumination on a problem could be the brain’s effort to come up with a solution. That is, “If I think about this long enough I will solve it.” And that evolutionarily-determined repetitive thought process could lead to becoming more effective. In such a situation as we face now, with a tragedy too far away to help, the rumination actually creates a problem. Brooding without solution creates an increasingly distorted picture of what is going on and about one’s own condition in relation to the problem. Thoughts may go from “This is sad, frightening and I wish I could help,” (fairly logical) to “This is the end of the world and we are all going to be bombed, probably soon!” (Distorted logic that causes emotions to spiral downward.)

The alarm inherent in such distorted thoughts changes the stress level in the mind/body, further exacerbating depression. High chronic stress is felt in proportion to the perception of control. When we simply do not have control, our stress increases both anxiety and depression.

What can you do to avoid becoming anxious and depressed in the face of tragedy? Minimize and maximize our responses.

Three things to appropriately minimize the circumstances immediately help;

  • Minimize exposure to images: First turn off the TV. I was so aware that what I watched on TV Tuesday morning was a small number of video clips that played over and over and over. The same blue suitcase, the same finger over part of the lens, the same woman with her ankle propped up, and so on. The scene of people running in terror also played over and over, which raised sympathetic fear feelings in my body. By yesterday the carnage shots were more available, but still they were repeated. This repetition creates a distorted brain. Repetition makes the scenes and the thoughts that go with seeing them more imbedded in memory. As in real estate where “location, location, location” is the mantra, so in memory process, in which “repetition, repetition, repetition” is the brain’s mantra.
  • Minimize your thoughts of hate. Decide what to think early on. I don’t mean decide what to say about the perpetrators and I don’t mean decide who is responsible until you can have access to accurate information. I mean decide NOT to think of hate and rather to think about sending thoughts of grace and peace to those affected. So when you see or hear yet another reminder of the evil that you pair that information with deliberate sending out a thought of blessing to those in grief. The day of the bombing I communicated with a friend who had lived in Brussels and she said she was spending her day praying for those Americans who live there still and for relief of their fear and sadness.
  • Minimize the fear to a manageable level. Human beings like drama. Our brains are stimulated by big ideas. Of course they do. But when you create a big idea in response to the stimulation, you may make your own depressed or anxious feelings worse. My daughter was at a European airport at the time of the bombing, flying home from a visit to a brother who lives there. I could have done what many of us do when we have any kind of proximity to an exciting event by focusing on the thought, “What if she had been flying out of Brussels instead? She would have been in the bombing.” I could have told this to friends and worked up my emotional arousal. I chose to think instead, “Thank goodness she is well. I have been blessed by that.” All of us tend to place ourselves near to the drama with comments such as “I was there just before the fire started,” or “If I had not got off the road for a coffee, I would have been in that accident,” or “We were in the same hotel the Rolling Stones stayed in the day after they left!” Whether it is pleasurable excitement or terrifying excitement, our brains thrive on stimulation and we will create that by noting our proximity to big events. To do that about terrifying incidents does not help a depressed and anxious brain, because it makes it seem that we are more at risk.

Then, maximize your impact.

  • Maximize gratitude and support. We live in a world that is full of awfulness, most of which we cannot predict or prevent. We must of course decide how to respond with appropriate laws and support of those whose work is to apprehend perpetrators and to heal victims by our participation in the election and legal processes of government. We can contribute to long-term support of helpers. Fred Rogers was quoted as saying that when we see news reports of things that are deemed scary we should look for the helpers. He points out “There are always helpers.” We can support their work. And we can maximize our gratitude they are there.
  • Maximize our contributions. We could become helpers. If we live near a disaster we may be able to volunteer: to repair a home, or bring in food or water after a natural disaster. We may be able to make a financial donation to assist relief efforts.
  • Maximize our contribution to what is positive. Let us not victimize our own selves, even as a way to show solidarity. Let us not let evil take even more from us by letting our own minds and our day-to-day lives be consumed by our emotional reactions to the awful. For the sake of our health and the wellbeing of everyone we encounter, make the effort to minimize the awful, to put it into perspective and create balance in our brains and in our lives.

Once we have taken whatever action we can helpfully take in any circumstance, we can fill the space around us with beauty, with the energy of thoughts that are peaceful. That is something we can be in charge of. When you choose to starve depression and anxiety of the negative thoughts that strengthen them, you have gone along way to maximize your own health in a risky world.