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Terrorism, Anger, Anxiety: How to Manage Strong Feelings

When we are faced with extreme world events such as terrorism, many of us can feel at a loss regarding how to process our emotions.  On one hand, we feel full of very strong emotion; and on the other hand we may simultaneously feel as if we are actually so powerless over whatever official governmental response will be taken that our feelings can seem almost irrelevant to the broader picture of how these events fit into perspective.  

What kind of reaction (or action) is most appropriate when we are faced with terrorism?  I’ve been pondering reactions to anger and anxiety over terrorism seriously since the execution of American journalist James Foley, and one thing I’ve realized is that our feelings are important.  The healthy function of emotion is to stimulate us to take action, and there actually are small but meaningful actions we can take regarding world events— so each time there is an event of terrorism I make a point to strengthen my resolve to fight feeling “frozen” with terror.

I wrote the blog below in 2014 as a way to sort out some intense feelings around a particularly disturbing event of terrorism, but the process I discovered around acknowledging emotions and finding healthy ways to respond to them would apply to similar events, whenever we are faced with acts of terrorism.  I hope we never have to face these types of events or feelings again, but if we do then I hope you will find this blog helpful to manage the profound feelings that can arise when we encounter terrorism.

On Tuesday, August 20th, 2014, I was horrified to learn about the beheading of journalist James Foley by ISIS. I have to admit that my horror was so profound that it initially caused me to avoid basic and important facts about this act of terrorism. It felt almost too painful to think about. However, I don’t want to bury my head in the sand— John and Diane Foley don’t have that option, and really neither do I. When I do think about what happened, I experience profound and intense anxiety, as well as strong feelings of anger. As a psychologist who works with many clients dealing with anger issues, I know that anger often compels people to act inappropriately- but many times, clients also need support with learning to take appropriate action rather than “stuffing down” their feelings. While action can sometimes be dangerous and offensive to some people, I would like to suggest that inaction can sometimes be dangerous offensive too. In a parallel sense, anxiety can cause “analysis paralysis” in which we feel compelled to constantly analyze whether our feelings or reactions are okay or “politically correct”, instead of giving ourselves permission to have normal human reactions to fatal attacks that are openly aimed at our society and culture.

Political inaction is a huge issue today among people in their 20s and 30s. I, for one, tend to keep my political views private. I believe this is something we are taught as young people: to hide our political opinions out of a sense of “politeness.” But when it comes to terrorism, I’m horrified at how silent we are about politics. We need to risk disagreement and speak up. The motivation to do this can be found by being mindful about our reactions to terrorism.

Even though I can never understand the pain that John and Diane Foley, and the rest of James’ family and friends; as well as the family and friends of victims of the attacks in Paris or San Bernardino and myriad other attacks by ISIS are experiencing, I still experience horror, outrage, and anxiety. Instead of hiding from these feelings, I am working to be mindful of these feelings. As a psychologist, I know that feelings exist because they are trying to tell us something; they are essentially information about our experience. Feelings like anger and anxiety are often clues that we are sensing injustice. And oftentimes, taking action is an appropriate step for dealing with injustice.

Anger management clients often need to learn techniques that guide them to experience feelings of anger without acting on them, because sometimes anger is understandable but action is actually inappropriate. For example, is understandable to be angry when someone cuts you off on the highway, it is not appropriate to act on it- such action is not worth the potential consequences. However, in other situations, anger can mobilize us to take appropriate action— for example, we may become angry if we are witnessing an act of child abuse, and this anger can mobilize us to spring to action and aid victim. In these types of situations, taking action is actually the most appropriate and healthy response to anger. So, although it is difficult, I want to encourage us all to not hide from our reactions to terrorism, but rather let our reactions compel us to take appropriate action. In a similar sense, anxiety management clients are often so afraid of having a “wrong” or “inappropriate” action that they disallow themselves any reaction– which, ironically, only increases anxiety because they end up feeling paralyzed and “stuffing down” their feelings till they burst, often in the form of explosive anger or panic.  So, what is the healthy way to deal with anger or anxiety vis a vis profound social injustice?  The answer is actually that  mindful action converts feelings into limit-setting behaviors to combat the injustice that initially provoked anxiety and anger.

What is appropriate action and behavior in the case of terrorism? I certainly have ideas about the answer to that question, but rather than use this blog to talk about my personal views on how we as people and citizens should respond to terrorism, I want to encourage you to think about how you feel about that question and then take what you evaluate to be appropriate action for you.  We each need to think about this important question of appropriate action-based responses to terrorism in an open and mindful way.

How can we explore our feelings to determine appropriate action?

1. Use mindfulness and self-observation to notice your thoughts without judgement.  Spend about 5 minutes focused on the topic of what actions you might want to take- don’t worry about whether you could or would actually do them– the idea is just to set your mind free to roam and then notice where it goes.  Don’t filter or censor, just note down what comes to mind when you consider the topic of terrorism and what reactions (including action) feels appropriate for you.  Action ideas could be anything from making donations to causes that align with your views, volunteering for veterans or refugees, organizing or attending a peace protest, joining the army or supporting troops overseas, writing to political leaders about your concerns, or having a book club focusing on authors writing about terrorism and or peacekeeping- the idea is just to notice and list your ideas without judgement.  Write your ideas down without self-judgement, as if you were a secretary simply writing a log of what was said at a meeting.

2. Set your list aside and review next day.   Next to each idea, write down your feelings about whether it is plausible, appropriate, proactive, or any other factors that are important to you.  The goal here is just to notice your reactions to your ideas; don’t worry about choosing one yet.  In Step One, the goal was to note down your ideas without evaluating them.  In Step 2, we begin to evaluate the ideas to see which ones feel right for action.

3. You may want to review your list with family and friends.  Feedback helps people sort ideas though, and it gives them a sense of community to cope with stress from challenging thoughts.

4. After as much consideration as you need, choose whichever action feels best to you.  Use mindfulness and self-observation again to see how you feel after choosing the action (before even taking action, just choosing it) to confirm if it feels like the right idea for you.

5. Continue using mindfulness and self-observation to see how the action feels in practice, and choose a different action if need be.

Don’t worry about choosing “the best” course of action.  Know that by going through a mindful process of exploring your feelings to evaluate what you feel is an appropriate course of action, you are practicing self-awareness and taking conscious action.

How to practice mindfulness and self-observation so we can notice our own thoughts in a non-judgmental way without reacting to them?  We begin by observing the body and breath, and then work up to observing more complex things like thoughts about terrorism. I recently hosted a workshop on Yoga and Emotion, which included breathing and yoga to facilitate mindfulness and self-observation. If you’d like to see some footage from practice sessions I did with some of the therapists in my office, click below.  Also below are links to my two appearances on Inside Edition to discuss the topic of anger management; along with a video of me leading an exercise on using the breath for mindful self observation.


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