Fear of Terrorism

Fear of Terrorism & What You Can do to Alleviate it

Stephen Cox, M.D.President and Medical Director

Dr. Cox wishes to gratefully acknowledge the helpful assistance of The Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in preparing this work.

The word “National” in National Anxiety Foundation refers to the nation of the United States of America. The following medical information is written specifically for the enlightenment of the citizens of the United States of America. However, in the international scope, terrorism affects almost everyone on earth. Citizens of every country may be helped by this information.

War and terrorism are powerful causes of fear. A change in behavior caused by fear is the desired effect and the purpose of terrorism. Combating this fear is not just desirable. Combating this fear is the duty of each and every citizen. And helping other citizens to fight this fear is the duty of every citizen. Mitigating your fear and alleviating fear in others is your obligation. But how do you fight fear?

You will notice I am not using the word anxiety here. I use the word Fear. Anxiety often refers to the feeling or emotion of fear when the cause of the emotion is sometimes obscure. I don’t think the phrases “terrorism anxiety” or “war anxiety” make much sense after September 11, 2001.  Terrorism fear and war fear makes a lot of sense to me.  People during this time of terrorism are not unclear about where their fear is coming from.  They know exactly what they are afraid of and it is not an irrational anxiety.

First, to understand fear more completely, let’s consider what the opposite of fear is.  A lot of unpleasant emotions have an opposite emotion. Opposites are words like good and bad, up and down, and light and darkness. Some emotions have opposites, like sad and glad.  The emotion fear actually has two opposites when one really thinks about it.  The two opposites of fear are (1) courage and (2) peace of mind. To eliminate fear, we should replace it somehow with one or both of its opposite emotions – courage or peace of mind.

To change an emotion from one emotion to another, you must change the thoughts that lead to that emotion. That is because, except in the case of a so-called “clinical imbalance psychiatric disorder,” our emotions stem from our thoughts. If I think fearful thoughts, guess how I am going to feel emotionally? I am going to feel afraid; but, if I exert effort to force myself to think courageous and brave thoughts, or to think peaceful, calm thoughts, I am going to feel how? I am going to feel more brave or feel more peace of mind.

Every time you feel afraid, it should help to think courageous thoughts or calming thoughts. This is not rocket science. If you have ever had a friend who was frightened and you tried to console them, what did you tell them?  You didn’t agree with them and tell them that whatever dangerous possibility they were afraid of was certain to occur.  No, you tried to reassure them that in your opinion they overestimated the actual risk of harm and the situation was not as dangerous as they told themselves it was.

It can help to identify and write down what fearful thoughts you are thinking. Often, when you write down on paper your actual fearful thought and then read it, you can more easily see that it is untrue or that it is an exaggeration of a very unlikely risk of harm.  Once you realize you are thinking an exaggeration, you can more easily change your thought to a less frightening or less exaggerated thought. That less frightening thought will lead to a less frightening emotion.  Here are some examples of irrational, fearful thoughts and some improved, truthful, less frightening thoughts.


Fearful, irrational thought:
“I think I’m likely to die from an attack by terrorists if I fly on an airline. I am going to cancel my ski trip”
(this thought causes fear).

Braver and calmer, rational alternative thought:
“I refuse to scare myself by allowing myself to predict catastrophes that are going to happen to me. The truth is that I don’t have a crystal ball. The truth is that I don’t know the future. Something bad might happen to me but that is unlikely. There were about 5000 planes aloft in the United States air space at the moment the Word Trade Center was attacked. In that two-hour period that the World Trade Center was attacked, there were only 4 planes out of about 5000 that were attacked; therefore, about 4,996 planes were not affected. Even on September 11, 2001 at 9:00AM my risk of my plane being hijacked was only 4 chances out of about 5000. So there were 4996 chances out of about 5000 that my plane would have arrived safely even on that morning of 9/11/2001. With the increased security, safeguards and watchfulness, it is probably even much safer to fly today than it was that day. Flying never was guaranteed to be completely safe. Several planes crash every year around the world, but that risk didn’t keep me from flying in the past. This terrorism risk adds only a very tiny risk to the overall risk that I previously accepted without giving it much thought”
(This sensible thought alleviates fear by leading to a braver and calmer emotion).


Fearful, irrational thought:
“I am going to try and talk my family out of going to Florida to visit my aging parents. We will all catch anthrax and die.”

Braver and calmer, rational alternative thought:
“I refuse to upset myself by allowing myself to predict that a catastrophe will happen to me and my loved ones. Several million people live in Florida and only a few persons have contracted anthrax in the whole state; and out of all of those, only one or two died. My farmer grandfather once had sheep that contracted anthrax, but nobody panicked about it. It makes no sense to avoid a trip to Florida when last year I went to Central America knowing I could catch drug resistant malaria (which I know is fatal). I refuse to let terrorists win by changing the way I do things. I am going to stop frightening myself about anthrax and go to Florida and live my life the way it is normal and right to do”
(These thoughts fight fear by leading to the braver and calmer emotion).

Poison Water

Fearful, irrational thought:
“I am afraid to drink anything.  What if terrorists poison the water supply?”

Braver and calmer, rational alternative thought:
“I refuse to scare myself out of drinking water and other beverages because of this irrational exaggerated thinking.  Although it’s possible that a terrorist might try to poison some reservoir somewhere, it is extremely unlikely.  There are thousands of water systems in this country.  The odds are slim that terrorists would target the water system in my local area to contaminate.  Testing and water treatment would probably eliminate such contamination anyway”
(This logical thought fights fear by leading to a braver and calmer emotion.).