The terrorist attacks in London Thursday served as a jarring reminder that in today's world, you never know what you might see when you pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV. Disturbing images of terror can trigger a visceral response no matter how close or far away from home the event happened.
Throughout history, every military conflict has involved psychological warfare in one way or another as the enemy sought to break the morale of their opponent. But thanks to advances in technology, the popularity of the Internet, and proliferation of news coverage, the rules of engagement in this type of mental battle have changed.
Whether it's a massive attack or a single horrific act, the effects of psychological warfare aren't limited to the physical damage inflicted. Instead, the goal of these attacks is to instill a sense of fear that is much greater than the actual threat itself.
Therefore, the impact of psychological terror depends largely on how the acts are publicized and interpreted. But that also means there are ways to defend yourself and your loved ones by putting these fears into perspective and protecting your children from horrific images.
What Is Psychological Terror?
"The use of terrorism as a tactic is predicated upon inducing a climate of fear that is incommensurate with the actual threat," says Middle Eastern historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University. "Every time you have an act of violence, publicizing that violence becomes an important part of the act itself."
"There are various ways to have your impact. You can have your impact by the magnitude of what you do, by the symbolic character of target, or the horrific quality of what you do to a single person," Bulliet tells WebMD. "The point is that it isn't what you do, but it's how it's covered that determines the effect."
For example, Bulliet says the Iranian hostage crisis, which began in 1979 and lasted for 444 days, was actually one of the most harmless things that happened in the Middle East in the last 25 years. All of the U.S. hostages were eventually released unharmed, but the event remains a psychological scar for many Americans who watched helplessly as each evening's newscast counted the days the hostages were being held captive.
Bulliet says terrorists frequently exploit images of a group of masked individuals exerting total power over their captives to send the message that the act is a collective demonstration of the group's power rather than an individual criminal act.
"You don't have the notion that a certain person has taken a hostage. It's an image of group power, and the force becomes generalized rather than personalized," says Bulliet. "The randomness and the ubiquity of the threat give the impression of vastly greater capacities."
Psychiatrist Ansar Haroun, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves in the first Gulf War and more recently in Afghanistan, says that terrorist groups often resort to psychological warfare because it's the only tactic they have available to them.
"They don't have M-16s, and we have M-16s. They don't have the mighty military power that we have, and they only have access to things like kidnapping," says Haroun, who is also a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.
"In psychological warfare, even one beheading can have the psychological impact that might be associated with killing 1,000 of the enemy," Haroun tells WebMD. "You haven't really harmed the enemy very much by killing one person on the other side. But in terms of inspiring fear, anxiety, terror, and making us all feel bad, you've achieved a lot of demoralization."
Read Web MD's "Americans Unprepared for Psychological Terror."
Why Distant Terrors Trouble Us
When a horrific event happens, experts say it's natural to feel disturbed, even if the act occurred thousands of miles away.
"The human reaction is to put yourself in the situation because most of us have good mental health and have the capacity to empathize," says Haroun. "We put ourselves in the shoes of the unfortunate person."
Witnessing an act of psychological terror can also disrupt our belief system, says Charles Figley, PhD, director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute.
"We walk around, psychologically, in a bubble, and that bubble represents our belief system and values," says Figley. "Most often we assume incorrectly that other people have the same values and social niceties as we do. When that is violated or challenged, the first response is usually an effort to protect our beliefs and, in other words, to deny that it actually happened."
When confronted with proof of terror, such as pictures of atrocities, Figley says there are a few different ways in which people typically react:
—Suggest that the perpetrators are not like us in any way, that they are inhumane.
—Become fearful in the sense that they feel that they are living in an uncaring and unsafe world because the bar of inhumanity has been lowered even further.
—Believe that it's only a temporary manifestation that can be explained away or deconstructed by specific things that have taken place, such as "if we hadn't done this, then that would not have happened."
"It's uncomfortable believing that the world is less safe, so we have to imagine or construct a scenario that will allow us to feel more safe again and resist change," says Figley.
Click on the Video Box in the upper right corner of this story to watch an eyewitness account of the London bus bombing.
How to Cope
Experts say the key to coping with psychological terror is to find a healthy balance.
"When people are stressed, there is a temptation to lose touch with reality and to blur the boundary between reality and fantasy," says Haroun.
He says the reality might be that the chance of becoming a victim of terror is very small, but the fantasy is, "Oh my, it's going to happen to me and happen to everyone."
"If you blur that line and start making decisions on false data," says Haroun, "that's going to lead to bad decision making."
He says the first thing is to stay grounded in reality, seek out reliable sources of news and information, and don't rush to make quick judgments based on incomplete or inaccurate information.
"Because we are people, our decision-making skills can be impaired in times of extreme stress, so the trick is to talk to wise people," says Haroun.
That could be a trusted family member, counselor, clergy, or other person who has sound judgment.
The second thing to do is reduce your stress level. The easiest way to do that is to talk about the stress and fear you're feeling with someone else.
Trauma expert Charles Figley says that people often fall into two camps after experiencing trauma: overreaction or underreaction.
"If we overreact in an emotional way, then we're not thinking very logically and clearly, and we could benefit from thinking it through rationally," says Figley. "If we only go to the rational part and don't think about the humanity and the emotions, then we are also denying sensitivity to that and awareness of how we may be responding, perhaps not now but eventually on an emotional level."
Figley and Haroun say it's worth asking yourself why you might be under- or overreacting to a particular situation because it may be related to something in your subconscious.
"It may be associated with one's own fear of death, you may be still grieving a previous death, or fearful for a relative in military service," says Figley. "Then that's where you put your attention, not where it started but where it led you."
Read Web MD's "Terrorism Fears Hurt the Heart."
Protecting Children From Psychological Warfare
Experts say both adults and children today are more susceptible to the effects of psychological terror than in years past due to the proliferation of media outlets.
"It's a heightened issue with the amount of bombardment there is with television, radio, and the Internet. It has exponentially increased over the past couple of decades," says psychologist Debra Carr, PsyD, of the Institute for Trauma and Stress at the New York University Child Studies Center. "For adults who are 30 or 40, what they experienced growing up with television is no longer the reality."
Carr says it's hard enough for adults to fathom current international affairs, and it's even more difficult for children to understand the images they see without being able to put them into the proper context.
"My concern is that for any child watching television, there is a potential that they could generalize it to the world at large," says Carr. "If they are not able to understand that the event is far away, they may have difficulty understanding that it's not an immediate threat."
Car says the tragedy of 9/11 has also made it harder for parents to explain away atrocities that their children might see on television.
"I think that years ago parents could say to their kids, 'Well that's not happening here and it's not going to happen here,'" says Carr. "I don't think parents can necessarily say that anymore truthfully."
But she says it is OK for parents to let their children know that they're afraid, too. Otherwise children may pick up on the disconnect between the fear they see in their parents faces and a refusal to talk about it.
Mental health experts and organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, say the most effective way to protect children from the effects of psychological terror is to be aware of what their children are watching on television and on the Internet and be available to answer their questions.
Read Web MD's "How to Talk to Your Kids About War."
Other ways to help children deal with disturbing images include:
—Monitor children's TV viewing to avoid exposure to disturbing images whenever possible. They may be particularly confusing and troubling to very young children who lack the communication skills to make sense of them.
—Answer children's questions openly and honestly but gear the answers to the child's developmental level. Avoid offering too much or overly complex information.
—Monitor your own reactions. Children will model their parents' reactions whether they like it or not.
—Avoid stereotyping people by their religion or country of origin. This can promote prejudice in young minds.
—Children previously exposed to trauma or violence may be especially vulnerable to news reports and violent images. Watch for signs of trouble sleeping, mood changes, or irritability that might be a sign of a problem that should be evaluated by a mental health professional.
"Parents need to do a lot of listening, being sensitive, and enabling older kids to talk about what they're feeling," says Figley. "Younger children are going to be more apt to look at their parents and see how they're doing."
Read Web MD's "Public Health Experts Plan for the Unthinkable."
Published June 22, 2004, medically updated July 7, 2005.
SOURCES: Richard Bulliet, PhD, professor of history, Columbia University. Charles Figley, PhD, director, Florida State University Traumatology Institute. Ansar Haroun, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry, University of California, San Diego; lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army Reserve. Debra Carr, PsyD, director, adolescent girls project, Institute for Trauma and Stress, New York University Child Studies Center. Ganor, B. "Terror as a Strategy of Psychological Warfare," July 15, 2002, International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. American Psychological Association. American Psychiatric Association.