The Psychological Impact of Terrorism: Why Does it Get to Us?


Healthy Living - November 17, 2015
David Prescott, PhD

Sadly, the world is once again attempting to come to grips with two additional acts of terrorism: the multiple attacks in and around Paris, and a suicide bombing in Beirut on November 12, where 43 people were killed and 239 people were wounded.  Understanding that such acts greatly impacts the lives of those who were directly affected is easy.  Yet, acts of terrorism impact people who were miles from the event and who knew not a single victim. 
Why does terrorism impact many of us so greatly?  Acts of terrorism tap into two basic parts of the human mind.  These parts of the mind have helped us survive over generations, and at the same time continue to cause stress, worry, and fear. 
First, acts of terror disrupt our basic sense that the world is a generally safe and predictable place.  Our system for coping with danger, the flight or fight response, functions best when it responds to discrete events in a time limited fashion.  We can fight for a matter of minutes, or run for a brief time, but this system is short term in nature.  However, following a terrorist event, for many of us the fight or flight system gets put on a state of constant high arousal.  For some, the fear response seems unable to shut itself off.
Second, acts of terror appear to heighten our awareness that life will end.  Terror management theory, a theory from social psychology, proposes that humans are unique in their knowledge of their own vulnerabilities and their knowledge that they will eventually die.  Acts of terrorism appear to heighten our awareness of these basic vulnerabilities and may cause us to become chronically worried, depressed, or distressed. 
What Psychological Factors Influence Our Response to Terrorism?  People differ in the degree to which an act of terror impacts them.  Researchers find that three variables help explain why some people experience extensive anxiety, stress, and depression, while others seem more able to move on. 
Ruminating About the Event:  People who spend a great deal of time thinking about, replaying, and focusing on the consequences of a terror event appear more likely to suffer psychological distress. 
Magnification:  Without diminishing the tragedy associated with terrorism, some people appear to magnify the risk of being directly impacted by a terroristic act after they hear or read about it.  For most of us, the risk of experiencing an act of terrorism is quite low; however, people who magnify the risk suffer greater levels of anxiety.
Helplessness:  A wide body of psychological research shows that active coping responses are superior to passive helplessness.  Even doing something active that is not directly related to an act of terror, seems to help.  People who find some active way to cope with their fear, suffer less distress than those who respond in a helpless manner. 
Managing the Fear Associated with Terrorism:  Remembering the active coping with psychological distress typically leads to less distress than passive coping, consider the following:
  1. Stay socially connected – social isolation appears to compound the psychological damage that acts of terrorism cause.  Feeling that you have others in your life who listen to you and value you reduces anxiety, worry, and sadness.
  2. Do things which build self-esteem – Self-esteem helps build your general psychological resilience.  Efforts to strengthen your sense of self-worth helps with most psychological troubles, including those caused by acts of terror.
  3. Limit Your Exposure – time spent reading, listening, or watching events and analysis of a terrorism event increases your tendency to ruminate and worry about them. Rarely does prolonged focus on such an event make us feel emotionally better.
  4. Help others – We cannot always directly help victims of an act of terror.  However, there are many large and small opportunities to help those in our community.  Altruism, the act of helping others, has been shown to be psychologically healing.
For More Information: 
Psychology In Action:
American Psychological Association: