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Monday, 23 September 2013

Fear and terrorism: Facing a new public health threat

It is the tool of terrorism.  It is not the bombs, nor the shootings – but the fear that what happened in a mall in Nairobi, or night club in Bali, or on the subway in Toyko, or office building in New York - could just strike the place where I live, shop, play or work. 

Fear invokes stress.  Stress involves a persistent elevated level of cortisol, and is associated with with a variety of short term and long term health consequences.  Insommnia, irritability, distraction, right through to reduced sexual desires.  Chronic stress invokes cardiac problems, changes in appetite, habituation to substances, withdrawl,  and may progress to manifest phobias that impair even normal functioning.

The global impact invoked by a tragedy like the Kenyan mall attack is far greater than the dozens who have been murdered and the over hundred who have been injured.  It will cause flashbacks to events that may have touched our lives, and for North Americans it is the collapse of the World Trade Centre. 

No, having flashbacks is not normal, it is a manifestation of the chronic fear being fueled. For some the flashbacks may be just recollection of memories, for others initiation of fear symptoms associated with the wake of an event that they are recalling. 

The infrequent but constant flow of terrorist events, the wide variety of locations affected, the broad geographic distribution must make many ask that fearful question “could I be where the next attack occurs”.

Having societies succumb to the fear is the very defeat that terrorism strives for. Lacking amongst the glorified media reporting of the event, are social efforts to help individuals grapple with the mental health consequences caused by such events and their glorification. 

Perhaps we wonder why mental health symptoms appear to be on the rise, and while terrorism is not the only cause, it provides a legitimate reason to have the discussion.

Canada’s aboriginal peoples are on their own healing process of truth and reconciliation, the culmination of a systematic effort to evoke chronic fear.  Perhaps we can learn from their experiences and share the successes as our world faces the faceless threat of terrorism. 

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