Psychological Toll of A Terrorist Attack

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino with a casualty toll of 144, the number of people injured from these events are boundless. Often times we focus our efforts on those closest to the event but the psychological toll of a terrorist attack behaves more like a ripple in a vast pond, vibrating in the lives of all that are aware.

Psychological Toll of a Terrorist Attack

After a terrorist attack, those affected by the assault covet control. The greater the sense of loss of control a particular observer or victim feels the more dramatic the changes in behavior to regain a sense of stability, says Discovery Channel journalist and Researcher.

This is true for many people that have experienced situations of terror or trauma. Often people that witness difficult events or experience a single traumatic event, like terrorist attack, feel the increased need for protection and control. This need for protection, like most things, is found on a spectrum ranging from manageable to severe behaviors. Often people will find themselves more isolated and avoid large crowds or traveling.

People will also experience a heightened awareness of their surroundings, exits, and begin to notice people and faces. This hypervigilance serves to monitor the individual’s level of security. They will often begin to question the presence of people, cars, or objects in an attempt to predict the recurrence of an attack. Sometimes this hypervigilance is based in reality and other times based out of fear and imagination.

Projection into the future with an intention of “predicting another attack” often causes us to focus our attention in the future and constantly run from something that may or may not occur. This fear avoidance is exhaustive, not only to you but to those around you.

Often fear of others and unfamiliar cultural groups or religious organizations will become an acute focus. People will try and “protect themselves” from future attacks by avoiding anything or anyone that reminds them of their offender. This need for control and safety is often misguided through its generalizations and maximization of the commonalities of the offender and other cultural or religious groups.

Lasting Impact

Shortly after exposure, the traumatic event ceases to be a concrete event and starts to become a psychological event. As such, it has to be metabolized and assimilated, that is, become part of the survivor’s inner network of meanings and experiences.

Our world view can become shaped by these events, ultimately creating a lasting impact in our attitudes and behaviors. We combat the toll of terrorist attacks that have become psychological events by talking with professionals and our peers about our fears, apprehensions, and reservations. The more we talk about our, seemingly irrational fears, the less power it holds over our behaviors and thoughts. We find that we are not alone in our fears and that we as a community can overcome this fear.

We must be cautious not to react out of our fear, in the ways listed above, but to operate out of a place of pragmatic understanding and awareness. Mindfulness and present focus help us to remain grounded and aware that while we are afraid, we are not currently in danger and are not currently experiencing an attack. If you feel the need to take action, a possible solution is to create a plan of action and then release yourself from any more responsibility.

Increase your network of support. The more people we have that we can talk with the less isolated and lonely we will feel. This increased network will reduce the need for self reliance and will encourage healthy thinking and reasonable decision making skills. We will have others around us that can challenge our irrational thinking and faulty reasoning.

Lastly a poem that symbolizes the underlying message of the article.

“Grant me the serenity to Accept the things I cannot change, the exposure to fear

the Courage to change the things that I can, my attitude and behaviors

and the Wisdom to know the difference, in this moment I am safe”



Angie Speller, LMHC, NCC

About Angie Speller, LMHC, NCC

Angie Speller is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Nationally Certified Counselor. She received her Master of Arts from the prestigious Rollins College in Winter Park Florida, after graduating from University of Florida for her Bachelor of Science, in Psychology. Aside from her training in Mental Health Counseling, Angie received specialized training in Dream Interpretation, Mindfulness Meditation, and Hypnosis. Read more about Angie.