How to Cope With the Fear of Terrorism

Ever since the Columbine shootings in 1999, Canden Arciniega has felt “a twinge of concern” about her safety. But as a historian in the District of Columbia who leads tours around crowded city sites like monuments, the 31-year-old can’t let the feeling overwhelm her.

“I live here and will raise my children here,” she comforts worried prospective visitors. “I wouldn’t put them at risk if I didn’t feel that D.C. was a safe place.” Plus, she adds, other risks are greater. “The scariest part of living in D.C. is trying to cross the pedestrian crosswalk … during morning rush hour,” she says.

Not everyone takes heed. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, plenty of people and school groups canceled their trips to the city, Arciniega says, especially after a video came out specifically targeting the District. People around the world changed their plans, too. In a Business Travel Coalition survey of travel and risk managers in 17 countries, 20 percent of respondents said they were “very or somewhat likely” to cancel travel plans to France .

Compared to years’ past, “people are more concerned about something happening with the plane or something happening in a country where they’re far away from home,” says Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in Valley Stream, New York, and author of “Master Your Fears: How to Triumph Over Your Worries and Get on with Your Life.”

While feeling upset after a terrorist attack is normal — and taking reasonable steps to stay out of harm’s way is smart — living in fear is neither healthy for you nor helpful for anti-terrorism efforts, psychologists and threat assessment experts say.

“Terrorism, by its nature, is a very ineffective military tactic, but it’s more geared toward instilling fear,” says Mario Scalora, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln who studies targeted violence and threat assessment. Buying into that fear, he says, leaves terrorists victorious. In other words: Arciniega has the right idea.

“The biggest message [against terrorists],” Scalora says, “is to show that we can live our lives and that we’re moving forward.” Here’s how:

1. Recognize your emotions.

Not succumbing to fear doesn’t mean burying your emotions, says Elana Newman, a psychology professor at the University of Tulsa who studies how people cope with trauma. “Distress is not a bad thing — it shows you’re a moral, caring human being,” she says. “It’s only when it really gets in your way of achieving your goals and that you feel helpless that we need to talk about some of these coping mechanisms.”

Identifying your negative emotions is also an important first step in easing them, adds Ani Kalayjian, a psychologist in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, who specializes in disaster and mass trauma. “I invite people to first identify their feelings because the prescription of what to do depends on what they’re doing now,” she says.

2. Put it in perspective.

Whenever Newman starts to worry about her safety, she visits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website , which reminds her that heart disease, accidents and diabetes — not terrorism — are among the leading causes of death in the United States. “I get comfort from risk appraisal,” Newman admits.

While not everyone may feel the same sense of relief from death statistics, it’s important to keep the risk of death from terrorism — about 1 in 20 million, Sapadin says — into perspective. For example, while CNN calculated that 3,380 Americans died in terrorist attacks between 2001 and 2013, almost nine times that many died in car accidents in 2013 alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “The fear of terrorism is far worse than the actual threat of terrorism,” Scalora says. It can simply feel greater because it’s a relatively new threat, Sapadin adds. “New risk seems more frightening,” she says, “[but] there’s always been risk in the world.”

3. Take a media break.

How much information makes you feel empowered and how much just scares you? That line is a little different for everyone, says Newman, the research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “Most people know to some degree lots of information makes them feel safer or makes them feel unsafe,” she says. “Everybody’s got their own sort of temperature or balance point.”

Once you’ve reached yours, take a media break — or at least switch from TV news to print news, since research suggests the latter is less traumatic. “TV images of dreadful events make them more vivid in our imagination,” Sapadin says. “That creates overexposure that makes us feel more vulnerable to attack.”

4. Turn to your default (healthy) coping mechanism.

If you’re not sure how to manage your worries, consider how you’ve successfully coped in the past. “Use [your] signature strength,” Newman suggests. Exercising, spending time outdoors and maintaining your regular work routine are all healthy outlets that can help you feel more in control, Kalayjian says. Deep breathing is a powerful coping mechanism, too. “Breathing can release a lot of negative feelings such as anger, frustration and fear,” Kalayjian says. “That breath can give you so much power and brings you back to your confidence that this too shall pass.”

But be careful not to self-medicate in destructive ways, such as smoking, eating junk food or drinking too much, Kalayjian adds. “We have to really be mindful of that because those things poison us more, and it turns our attitude into negativity,” she says.

5. Take control.

If you see something, say something” is a national security phrase worth heeding. “That empowers people to recognize they have a role in their own safety; [they’re] not helpless,” Scalora says. For Arciniega, taking control means reporting anything out of sorts — say, a lone bag or an oddly placed phone — to a ranger, keeping visitors away from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and always having an “escape plan” in mind for her groups while she’s leading tours.

The key is weighing the risks and benefits of your choices, Sapadin says. “What risks am I willing to take to live the life I want to live?” she asks. “Do you get on a plane or don’t you? Do you go to France or don’t you? You can come to your own conclusions.”

6. Make connections.

Since the Paris attacks, Arciniega has tried to be even more friendly and open toward people in her tour groups. Reaching out to others — by asking how they’re doing or offering to help, for example — counters fear, Newman says. “It makes you feel more connected at times when you’re afraid of other people,” she says. “It helps to help other people.” What’s more, people who have strong social support are more likely to successfully cope with trauma, Newman says.

7. Know what’s out of your control.

There’s only so much you can do to protect yourself from terrorism. Leave the rest up to the experts. “It’s easy to be cynical about the government, but the realty is there are folks who are working very hard and doing a good job,” Scalora says. Arciniega likes to remind cautious tourists that the District has at least a dozen types of law enforcement professionals whose jobs are to keep them safe. “Quite a few [visitors] have mentioned feeling now was a safer time to visit because of heightened security,” she says.

8. Get help.

“If fear becomes your way of life, it takes a huge toll,” Sapadin says. “It squeezes all the fun and excitement and juiciness out of life.” If that’s the case for you, consider enlisting the help of a mental health professional — especially if you’ve been directly affected by violence. The outcome may surprise you. “After each trauma,” Kalayjian says, “people have a heightened capacity to grow and be better human beings.”

More from U.S. News

8 Ways to Relax — Now

How to Find the Best Mental Health Professional for You

Apps to Mind Your Mental Health

How to Cope With the Fear of Terrorism originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up