Terrorism’s Toll on the American Psyche

'Constant fear can change a person,' experts say, advising calm and vigilance

Life is filled with scary moments. But scary is taking on a whole new dimension today with the rise of random school shootings, acts of workplace and inner-city gun violence, and terrorist attacks.

“I think about how shocked people were at Columbine,” said Kelsey Wiggs, 24, a first-year graduate student in clinical psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., referring to the high school shooting massacre in April 1999 in Colorado. “Now school shootings are a regular thing, and that’s horrifying.”

The attacks are leading to a heightened sense of our surroundings and thoughts of what we might do to protect ourselves and our families in the event of such a scenario. But the ongoing stress is also creating a new set of health issues for many people, according to health experts.

“While fear is different for everyone, it’s a combination of emotions including anxiety, uncertainty and hyper vigilance,” said Jonathan Alpert, Manhattan-based psychotherapist, columnist and author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.”

“When we were cavemen, we needed to be on high alert to stay alive. It was critical to always be prepared for pending doom and danger. But today the terror is different – it is unexpected, non-specific and random.”

It’s that very randomness that makes it most scary, said Wiggs. “You can’t predict it.”

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The coordinated attacks on 9/11 initiated a climate of fear that can breed new fear, advised Alpert. The frequency of workplace and school shootings today means another layer of unease that is laced with both memories and imagery.

Wiggs and her friends are more aware than ever about the attacks around the country. The violence noted on the news and on social media is pervasive, she said.

“It makes me sad and fearful in general. The fact that we live in this world and there isn’t a good fix — there hasn’t been a resolution. That frightens me more than if I am going to be attacked in some way.”

Non-stop fear can manifest itself in physical ailments such as anxiety, depression, headaches, loss of appetite, stomachaches and backaches, explained Alpert, who has seen an increase in fear among his patients. Fearfulness makes us more easily distracted, unable to focus and tends to isolate us. We may not be participating in the things we once enjoyed.

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Ongoing and elevated stress levels are linked to high blood pressure and heart problems, as well as more severe asthma attacks. They can also exacerbate issues with Type 2 diabetes.

“Constant fear can change a person,” said Marcie Moran, director of Catholic Family Services in Sioux Falls, S.D. She said she encounters more people who now seem to have a shorter fuse.

“Many of them have altered their lifestyles. They become overly cautious, more paranoid. Fear takes away the joy and relaxation in life,” said Moran, a licensed psychologist with a weekly radio show.

Some people become so hyper vigilant that they communicate their fear to others, Moran told LifeZette. “Strict warnings easily become a trigger for those who are already highly stressed, and that can travel from one person to another, causing group fear.”

However, just because we have seen an increase of violence in our society doesn’t mean we have to run and hide, said mental health experts.

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“People have to focus on what they can control. Make sure there is a plan in place. They should still go about their routine but be be mindful of problems,” said Alpert.

“Stay in safe environments; be with people you know. Don’t become anxious over small things. Keep calm,” added Moran. “If the fear is overwhelming, get counseling.”

As for the 24-year-old Wiggs, she likes to take long runs, watch light-hearted TV shows and meditate to keep her mind at ease. Still, she knows enough to be aware.

Be sure to distinguish between fact and fiction, Alpert advised. Make two columns on a piece of paper; write down all the facts you know to be true on one side and everything you’ve heard on the other. Then cross out all the things you’ve heard — and focus on only the facts.

Furthermore, limit your exposure to media. The constant bombardment of fear-inducing images only exacerbates anxiety and helplessness.

Take reasonable precautions such as locking doors, being vigilant and knowing who is around you. Follow the directive seen in subways and elsewhere: “If you see something, say something.”

Finally, don’t be afraid be vigilant. “If you are afraid, you withdraw and are held hostage,” said Alpert.

But when you are vigilant, “you are taking action,” he said.

With reporting by Dorene Weinstein for LifeZette.