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Terrorism and Anxiety

Since the Manchester attack, I have struggled to write a meaningful (beyond the obvious “terrorism is anxiety-provoking”) post about terrorism and anxiety. Honestly, this one has been a particularly challenging topic for both me and Abs. Like most of us, I am still trying to make sense of the world we now live in—a world where there is so much more anxiety than ever before. And this relatively new kind of terrorism (where people use their bodies as weapons of mass destruction) certainly contributes to that.

Already suffering from panic disorder, I lived in New York City during 9/11 and its aftermath. Before that day, riding the subway was very difficult. In fact, getting in my elevator was even a challenge. So I assumed that such an intense trauma would leave me in bed for months or, at the very least, scrambling to move out of Manhattan. But after 9/11, my emotions were similar to other people without anxiety disorder: I was very sad and a little on edge, but mostly, I was okay. In fact, I was able to get back on the subway within 2 weeks and didn’t spend the entire trip shaking in panic. At first, this seemed confusing to me. Shouldn’t I have been paralyzed by an act of terror in my own backyard?

Research shows that my experience after 9/11 is similar to that of many other New York City residents who had already been dealing with panic disorder, and this is because our panic was not connected to actual threats. We were used to living in a state of “high alert” created by our own brains’ misfires. We were not, therefore, more susceptible to fear after a terrorism attack than anyone else.

So, in a strange way, terrorism helped me understand that my anxiety disorder really was a result of faulty brain signals and not at all grounded in real events. My trigger happy brain experienced terror every time I entered the subway or even the grocery store. I was accustomed to living in fear.

What actually exacerbated my anxiety (and everyone else’s) was watching the events occur over and over on television. Studies show that when we take in these stories in a loop—watching the same scenes over and over—our brains process the event like it is happening multiple times. Intellectually, we may know we are seeing the same story, but we are emotionally re-experiencing the situation every time the media re-runs the footage. In so many ways, the 24-hour news cycle, which did not exist until I graduated from college, amplifies the terror of these kinds of attacks.

I am not a media basher. In fact, I am a news junkie and would never be comfortable imposing a media “blackout” on myself (that would make me more anxious!). And I think the media is critically important to society as a whole. But I do believe that it is destructive for anyone—not just an anxiety sister—to experience trauma several times each day whenever something terrible happens in the world. Constant visual coverage of traumatic events does not permit healing—it keeps the brain and body in a perpetual state of vigilance, which is the very state I’m trying to avoid.

When it comes to terrorism-related threats, I have been able to remind myself that I am statistically much more likely to die by slipping in the bath than in a terror attack. (This would even be the case if I lived in Europe.) Of course, the ability to look at this rationally means that my anxiety disorder is not part of the equation. I know that is not true for everyone dealing with a brain illness. What scares me most about terror attacks, however, is actually the images and rhetoric after the incident—the constant “bracing for impact” all of us are expected and perhaps manipulated to feel.

We can’t control senseless attacks, like those that occurred in England this past month. But we can control the aftermath a little bit. I am going to try not to allow myself to re-experience the terror over and over again. Anxiety brains need no help when it comes to remaining on high alert.

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