We Need to Talk About the Profound Psychological Effects of Terrorism


Brussels is reeling from a terrorist attack that left 34 dead and at least 230 injured. In time, the news headlines will disappear and the city will start to recover, but when the physical damage is over, lasting psychological damage will linger. 

Both survivors and observers of terrorism face an onslaught of raw emotion that can be difficult to process and recover from. And research shows that when traumatic events like this happen, your brain can instinctively make you cling to people and things that affirm the views you already hold. This can further divide people of different races, religions and nationalities.  

We're fighting terrorism in clear, physical ways around the world, but there's also an ongoing and less visible fight happening — and we need to talk about it.

The psychological effects

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After fatalities and physical damage, psychological damage is quick to follow a terrorist attack. Survivors may find themselves reliving the experience over and over again. 

"Shortly after exposure, the traumatic event ceases to be a concrete event and starts to become a psychological event," the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, a social justice nonprofit center in Boston, explains. "As such, it has to be metabolized and assimilated, that is, become part of the survivor's inner network of meanings and experiences."

It's normal to feel shock, numbness, fear, guilt or anger after a terrorist attack. Sometimes victims may develop acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Psychiatric Times

Researchers who studied the aftermath of the 2004 Beslan massacre found that among the victims and others connected to the attack, "beliefs in meaningfulness and benevolence of the world were destroyed." 

Even those who aren't directly affected by terrorist attacks can begin feeling anxious and worried that more attacks may follow. 

Too much exposure to news and media around a terrorist attack can also take its toll. 

"Traumatic events, even not directly experienced, can pack a pretty hard wallop on anyone's mental health and functioning, and they typically do — at least immediately afterward and shortly thereafter," psychologist Joan Cook wrote in an article for Time. "Some people may feel more emotionally impacted than others, so we shouldn't judge ourselves or others for how we respond to events in the news. It can make people anxious."

(The FBI has a good resource for terrorism survivors. Psychologists have good tips on how to deal with anxiety about terrorism.)

How terrorism can change our behavior

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People do small things to regain control. Usually the goal of a terrorist attack is to elicit fear and some kind of emotional response, and that can sometimes manifest in measurable ways. 

Studies have shown that those affected by a terrorist attack crave a sense of control in their lives afterward and may change their behavior to get it. For example, after terrorist attacks in Israel in the 2000s, some of which happened in restaurants, researchers found that people chose to sit near an alternate exit when dining at a restaurant, while others quit eating at restaurants altogether. 

"Results show that concerns with frequent terrorism increase people's desire for control and may lead to avoidant behaviors," the research team concluded. And the more the victims felt like they had lost control over their lives in the wake of the attacks, the more extreme the behavior change was, according to the research.

"My research focused on how people adapt their consumption behaviors in areas that suffer frequent terror attacks, like Israel in early 2000s," study author Michal Herzenstein from the University of Delaware said in an email. "What happened in Europe is, unfortunately, starting to resemble that. We thought Paris was a one-off event, but now we have Brussels.

"After attacks such as the one in Brussels, we usually see a short period of public scare and withdrawal from the marketplace, but often times people resume their normal behavior quite quickly. Now that Europe suffered two major attacks in such a short timeframe, and as the frequency becomes higher, I think behavioral changes will last longer, but I find it hard to believe they will be permanent." 

How terrorism can change the way we perceive others

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People start to fear those who are different from them. This can happen unconsciously, says Michael Williams, a research associate at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

"More than two decades of research on terror management theory has found that when people are reminded of death, we tend to engage unconsciously in activities to assuage the terror of death," Williams said in an email. 

He continued:

"Among those terror-assuaging activities are thoughts and behaviors that defend our worldviews, which automatically tend to produce biased thoughts and behaviors against anyone perceived as unlike ourselves. So, for anyone aware of the recent attacks in Brussels, we could expect greater bias against those perceived as outsiders — for example, immigrants, or merely those who hold beliefs other than our own."

For an example, look no further than presidential candidate Ted Cruz's response to the Brussels attack, in which he said we need to "immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al-Qaida or ISIS presence" and law enforcement needs to start monitoring Muslim neighborhoods "before they become radicalized." Reactions like this are part of what terrorists hope to achieve.

"Scapegoating Muslim communities for these incomprehensible acts of extremism simply fuels more hatred, more hostility and more suffering," Neil Chakraborti, director of the Leicester Center for Hate Studies at the University of Leicester in the U.K., told the Guardian. "Rather than allowing terrorism to polarize, we should instead use these atrocities to remind ourselves of the shared sense of humanity that unites people living in diverse societies."

Resilience and support are the keys to recovery

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The best way to cope with a terrorist attack is to talk to people about your experiences and feelings, return to normal life as soon as possible and for people to support each other, experts say. People will recover at different paces, and that's normal.

Being aware of the potential psychological damage of terrorism gives us one more way to fight back.