I am writing this a few weeks
after an attack on the United States by terrorists.
I could have written this about many other terrors adults sometimes face, such as
living without adequate food and water,
living with chronic physical abuse,
living with someone who is intent on “breaking our will,”
living with a terminal disease that can strike at any moment,
and living through battles during war.
This topic is for adults.
(Although children often experience terror,
they are not my focus today.)
When a terrifying incident happens,
our first feeling is fear.
We immediately begin to think about “fight or flight”:
Will we take the abuse…
or try to minimize it
by using our cleverest strategy?
Later we will be quite proud of what we did during those first few minutes.
This immediate reaction to terror
is actually good for us psychologically.
It shows us how excellent we are
at handling the worst situations one can imagine.
In the first few days or weeks after the terrorizing incident
everyone feels certain fearful aftereffects.
Everyone also experiences a uniquely personal set of feelings.
The fearful aftereffects everyone experiences
come from our thoughts about the past and future.
Since the terror event was so intense,
it sticks in our minds
and we replay the memory a bit
until the image finally wears off.
And since we always want to protect ourselves,
we also naturally give some thought
to whether similar events will happen in the future.
The uniquely personal feelings are
the feelings each person tends to acknowledge
whenever anything goes wrong in their lives.
These can include sadness, anger, guilt, shame, irrational fear,
and whatever else we feel when things go wrong.
The healthiest among us will have very few of these feelings,
and the ones we do have won’t be too intense.
The least healthy among us may have many such feelings,
and some may be intense.
The thing to remember about all of these short-term effects is
that they are normal.
Even the intense and irrational feelings
some people have are normal for them.
They are used to them, and they will subside.
If the short-term feelings decrease in intensity each day
there is no need for concern and much reason for kind support.
Long-term effects may show up
one to three or four months later
– but they began way back in childhood.
When we were small each of us came up with
our own unique “safety plan.”
We came up with this plan in our birth family
and it worked as well as any plan possibly could have worked in that family.
As adults we still have our childhood safety plan in the back of our minds
but as we get older we adjust the plan in big and small ways,
based on the degree of safety we notice in our adult world.
When we experience terror,
our faith in our grownup safety plan is challenged
and we are tempted to return to some or even all
of our childhood beliefs about safety.
If we had a relatively safe childhood,
this revisiting of our childhood
might only mean that we allow ourselves to get more physical comfort,
just as we did with our parents when we were small.
But if we had a difficult childhood,
this return to our childhood safety plan might mean
following a plan that simply can’t work in the grownup world.
The most damaging effect of the experience of terror
is this return to an outdated plan.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE OF TERROR
About The Immediate Effects:
Notice how well you handled things
in the first few hours after the terror incident.
Realize that you can count on these natural abilities
to carry you through any future incidents that occur.
Also notice, and take very seriously,
how often you face such fear.
If frightening events happen often,
something is terribly wrong
with the way you are living.
Get help to change the way you make decisions
about who to spend time with,
how to protect yourself and others,
how to use your anger effectively, etc.
About The Short-Term Effects:
You are just soothing yourself as well as you can,
so you only need to trust yourself and avoid being self-critical.
About The Long-Term Effects:
If the emotional pain doesn’t go away in a few months,
you owe it to yourself to find a good therapist.
(Read “Are You Considering Therapy?” – another topic in this series.)
Accept yourself as you are.
Accept others as they are.
Don’t let terror rob you of anything!