Pennsylvania Health News Service Project
With news of the attacks in Paris over the past week as well as other recent acts of terrorism generating extensive news and social media coverage, physician leaders say groups like ISIS know that the physical harm they cause in one part of the world can instigate psychological damage throughout the planet.
According to physician leaders, such actions force every individual to form opinions on terrorism, and to do some soul searching related to their own mortality, personal safety, and views on the future.
And, say physician leaders, fighting terrorism must not only focus on emergency preparedness but also address the potential adverse physical and psychological damage that will occur as a result of terroristic activities. It is common that anxiety, depression, and fear develop when mass casualties occur.
There are things the public can do to protect themselves so that anxiety, depression, and fear doesn’t get the best of them, they said.
“If there’s one thing we all can do to fight terrorism, it’s understanding how fear works and what each of us can do so that ISIS is unable to turn fear into a victory for themselves,” says Scott Shapiro, MD, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. “Throughout the country it’s easy to see the ways our government is working to keep us physically safe, but let’s not forget there’s an invisible battle also being fought through fear and mental health.”
Robert E. Wilson, MD, PhD, president of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society, understands how anxiety caused by the buildup of repeated fear can negatively impact a person’s mental health. In general terms, he says fear is a natural response that triggers specific behaviors to deal with situations threatening a person’s well-being.
Dr. Wilson, as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, experiences firsthand how children express their fears related to unexpected tragedies and how parents and physicians play an important role in putting them at ease.
“We live in a plugged-in world. News travels quickly and one can become overwhelmed by fear to the point that they avoid situations like going to public events or flying on planes,” says Dr. Wilson. “Once this gets started, it can turn into a cycle that some people find difficult to break.”
However, he says the cycle can be broken, and even prevented before it gets started. “Addressing concerns right away and initiating important dialogue between parents, children, and medical providers is an important first step in reducing fear and anxiety,” Dr. Wilson says.
Both Drs. Shapiro and Wilson offer the following suggestions:
• Avoid/reduce additional media exposure for children and those individuals suffering from anxiety concerns to minimize the risk of additional adverse psychological and physical outcomes.
• Speak frankly with your children about uncertainty in their world. Be realistic in your approach. Do not promise them that additional attacks will not occur, but answer their questions honestly without overemphasizing the actual violence. Make them feel safe knowing that you and other adults are there to protect them.
• Encourage an environment that promotes safety and allows for verbal and written interaction about personal concerns for safety. Emphasize that it is not uncommon to feel scared, sad, or worried about the future.
• Learn relaxation techniques that can assist you in reducing stress.
• Eat healthy and avoid too much sugar and caffeine – both of which can be connected to increased anxiety levels.
• Avoid alcohol.
• Keep a normal routine that minimizes unexpected changes. Sleep regular hours. Eat at regular times. Exercise when you normally would.
“If you need help with anxiety, talk to your primary care physician, your psychiatrist, or someone that you trust with your physical and behavioral health needs,” says Dr. Wilson. “There are therapies, medications, and support groups that may be appropriate as well.”
Dr. Shapiro adds, “By scaring innocent people, making headlines, raising fears, and attacking symbolic or soft targets, terrorists at that moment change the way people live their lives, even if a person’s risk of facing the same scenario is low. It’s really important for all of us to realize that terrorism is also a psychological tactic. We can all fight back by paying attention to our mental health, not letting anxiety change the society we love, and taking back our lives.”