Terror from Terrorism

candle-1521246_1280Terrorism may truly be fear of fear itself.

Over the past few years, terrorism attacks throughout the United States and Europe have captured the public’s imagination. While prevalent, death from terrorism is a remarkably unlikely occurrence, but it often just doesn’t feel that way.

Research indicates that there is something unique about terrorist attacks that makes people expect imminent personal danger. Jennifer Lerner, a public policy expert from Harvard University, found that, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the average American estimated a 30 percent chance that they would be victimized.

Despite the horrors that often fill our television screens and newspapers, death from terrorism is, statistically, very unlikely. As the Washington Post reported in 2015, Americans are more likely to die from collapsing televisions and furniture than terrorism. This isn’t to mention our risk from heart attacks, skin cancer, or car crashes.

Dr. Lerner explains that this personalized concern was associated with visceral emotional responses. Men were likely to respond with anger, whereas women tended to experience fear. Notably, she found that both private citizens and military or national security experts tended to express similar emotional reactions.

Dr. Lerner suggests that this sort of fear could have a significant effect on government policy. She points out that, when experiencing anger, individuals are more likely to act aggressively and take risks. Thus, the menace of terror can itself shape policy responses to terrorism. She also warned that this can become exacerbated during times of acute crisis where national security officials and policymakers may suffer from sleep deprivation, exacerbating these biases.

But why is it that terrorism has such a provocative effect? If it is truly unlikely to claim our lives, why does it cause so much fear?

Daniel Antonius, a forensic psychiatry specialist with the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, attempts to answer this question by exploring the very emotion of fear. He explains that acts of terrorism are explicitly trying to inspire fear, through acts of sheer brutality. The goal is to make us scared.

“It is this fear, or the anticipation of future acts of terror, that can have serious effects on our behavior and minds,” he explains, demonstrating how acts of terror viscerally affect the automatic nervous system. When we see horrifying scenes in the news, the fear triggers hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prime our brain for a “flight or fight” response.

Similarly, Dr. Eric Hollander, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, attributes some of this fear to a desire to detect of prevent acts of terror: “We’re told to ‘see something, say something,’ so now people scan the environment and look for things that don’t seem right.” This results in us reinforcing the fear by dwelling on it.

For more information on Humintell’s work on understanding terrorism, click here.

The Continuing Value of Gratitude

adult-1850177_1280Hopefully, many of us have spent the last weekend giving thanks for our families, friends, and heaping turkey dinners, but don’t put all that gratitude behind you just yet.

According to Dr. Robert Emmons, who studies the emotion of gratitude, cultivating this feeling can promote healthy relationships and psychological, or even physical, health. For over three decades, Dr. Emmons has sought to demonstrate exactly how you can enjoy these benefits.

He praises the notion of gratitude as a “relationship-strengthening emotion,” explaining how it helps connect individuals and affirm our support for each other. Dr. Emmons’ research has shown that the regular expression of gratitude reduces feelings of social isolation and promotes forgiveness, generosity, and compassion.

The benefits extend beyond these social components, however, as Dr. Emmons also claims it can promote positive thinking, better sleep, and stronger immune systems.

In this context, gratitude involves recognizing the good factors in your life and how they come from other people or outside circumstances. This may include focusing on the positive aspects of a given situation or appreciating modest, everyday pleasures. Importantly, we must acknowledge that many of these pleasures come from without and thank the circumstances or people that have made our lives better.

The benefits of gratitude are deeply tied into this practice of giving thanks. By focusing on positive emotions, individuals can diminish or even block negative ones. This helps grateful people better manage stress and develop feelings of self-worth, enabling them to connect with others and feel better about themselves.

Practicing gratitude in this way, Dr. Emmons warns, is not as easy as just flipping a switch: “Just because gratitude is good doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Practicing gratitude can be at odds with some deeply ingrained psychological tendencies.”

Many people succumb to the notion that everything that happens, good or bad, is just the result of what we deserve. If something good happens, it’s because we have worked for that outcome and deserve it. Similarly, we blame ourselves for bad circumstances. This sort of thinking makes gratitude difficult.

But how can we work to better incorporate gratitude into our lives? Dr. Emmons has several suggestions. Initially, he recommends that we simply work harder at identifying positive aspects in our day to day lives, including particularly beautiful moments or friendly interactions with strangers.

From here, he suggests that people start makings lists or journal entries, regularly compiling these observations and describing anything that they grateful for. His research indicates that this sort of journaling can be an important step towards realizing the helpful effects of gratitude.

Most importantly, he emphasizes the actual expression of gratitude. Rather than just making a list, we ought to reach out and thank those that have helped us. This, according to Dr. Emmons, is the most important way of bringing gratitude into our lives beyond the Thanksgiving table.

For more information on the role of gratitude in health and happiness, read our past blogs here and here.

365 Days of Thank You

Inspired by the spirit of gratitude that is amplified each Thanksgiving day, Brian Doyle set out to extend the power of gratitude beyond one holiday in his unique social experiment: “365 Days of Thank You.” Learn how two words can change your world and world view.

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