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Q
Learning to Live with Terrorism?
I guess we'll have to get used to threats of terrorist attacks, but I've been a nervous wreck during "orange" alerts and the advice to be especially watchful and to stock up on canned goods, water, plastic, etc. How do you put the threat into perspective and maintain a healthy outlook on life?
A
Answer (Published 3/20/2003)

Updated 4/19/2005

You're not alone. The "orange" alert set nerves on edge all over the country, and if war comes, we can expect more of the same. A report in the New York Times described reactions ranging from a woman who is considering temporarily moving out of her high rise apartment to a hotel in New Jersey, to fatalists who figure that they'll just take their chances and do nothing.

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Until Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, 2001, we were very lucky in this country in that instances of terrorism were few and relatively small in scale. That doesn't mean that we've been immune to horrible and unpredictable events - certain school shootings claimed just as many lives as some of the suicide bombers in Israel. The difference now is that we've been warned that more terrorism is likely sooner or later, and we can't anticipate either its nature or location.

The nervousness and dread that you're feeling has been defined by some psychologists as "anticipatory anxiety" - fear and uncertainty of what is to come. Normally, the term "anticipatory anxiety" is used to describe the worry someone suffering from panic disorder experiences in expectation of another panic attack. It now is being applied to understandable anxiety in response to government warnings that terrorists are expected to strike again soon.

My colleague, Dan Shapiro, Ph.D., a psychologist, author and faculty member of the University of Arizona, tells me that he is seeing more stress-related symptoms including headaches, back pain, colds, nightmares, interrupted sleep, binge eating and irritability among his patients. He notes that living under the threat of terror and war "induces the exact type of stress that our immune systems are not designed to handle." Here are his suggestions for dealing with the anxiety:

 

  • Become socially and politically active. Making your voice heard can help reduce any sense of powerlessness you feel and probably is beneficial to your immune function.
  • Spend time with friends and family and be alert for symptoms of stress among them.
  • Watch children for signs of stress - they tend to become more argumentative, withdrawn or lose interest in activities they normally enjoy.
  • Monitor your thoughts; catastrophic thinking can set off harmful biologic processes. Keeping a level head in the face of crisis can help you protect yourself from the physical effects of fear.

 

To that I would add that this is a time to take especially good care of yourself. Be sure to eat well and exercise regularly. Use mind-body approaches and relaxation techniques to reduce stress and anxiety and keep yourself centered.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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