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The sniper crisis: Overcoming fear and anxiety

By Michael Ceo



The unsolved serial sniper attacks have had an effect on our emotional well-being like no other crimes in the last year. While the chances of becoming a victim are far less than, say, being injured in an auto wreck or contracting a life-threatening illness, our nervous systems are reacting as though we are in the gunman's sights everywhere we go.


Why is our sense of feeling threatened so pronounced and seemingly irrational? Here are some reasons why and some suggestions how to protect ourselves. Remember two things: Knowledge is power and talking can help enormously.


In a talk I gave recently at the Fairfax headquarters of a top corporation, near the scene of a recent sniper shooting, it was suggested that we have no control over this threat, highlighting a feeling of powerlessness. We can distance the threat of an auto accident by driving a safer car, by taking a defensive driving course or by not driving. We can, hopefully, protect ourselves from illness by healthy living. But the sniper acts both randomly and deliberately, targeting helpless victims.


Fear is contagious, and the receiving antenna of our nervous systems can absorb another's fear and trigger the same biochemical danger signals in us, making another's anxiety our own. Television can have this effect in a way that is insidious. One study showed that after the tragic events of 9/11, those who were riveted to their televisions had heightened symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. So, taking a vacation from TV can be a stress reducer.


Anxiety triggered by a prolonged crisis can become overwhelming and may get in the way of daily life. Since threats we experience stack up and morph together, it can be useful to diagnose the threat into bite-sized chunks. Sitting down with someone you trust to sort out and clarify the threat can bring relief and produce that safe and protected feeling of being cared for. Caring is the perfect antidote to fear and anxiety.


Here are some suggestions to help diminish the effect of these negative emotions:

  • Maintain control over the things you can. While taking reasonable precautions, keep to your routine and take charge of the activities over which you do have control.

  • Exercise. The strong emotions of fear, outrage and anger have direct hormonal effects in our bloodstream. This is the biological "flight or fight" response. Working up a sweat counteracts this physical response pattern.

  • Strengthen your spiritual resources. Real security in our material world is elusive. Developing your awareness of a "higher power" is comforting and supercharges your sense of purpose, meaning and satisfaction in life. Also, worship communities offer healing connections with others that overpower fear and anxiety in our lives.

  • Avoid withdrawal. Plan and attend social activities, large and small. Emphasize community contacts. Linking arms with one another brings power and strength. Highlight family activities.


In closing, remember that fear is the antecedent of courage. In my work with combat veterans over the years, the notion that brave and courageous behavior occurs without fear is simply untrue. This crisis, like all others, comes with a powerful opportunity to reach inside ourselves and discover new resources for personal growth, spiritual development and community.



Talking to children about their safety


To guide parents through discussions about fear and violence, the National Mental Health Association offers the following suggestions:


  • Encourage children to talk about their concerns and express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.


  • Attend to your own anxiety first. The message to convey to children is safety and personal protection. Try and quiet your own anxiety first.


  • Talk honestly about your own feelings regarding violence. It is important for children to recognize they are not dealing with their own feelings alone. Explain to your child that these acts of violence are rare, and they cause feelings even adults have trouble with. Explain that adults will always work very hard to keep children safe and secure.


  • Create safety plans with your child. Help identify which adults (a friend secretary, trusted neighbor or security guard) your child can talk to if they should feel threatened. Also, ensure that your child knows how to reach you.


  • Seek help when necessary. If you are worried about a child's reaction or have ongoing concerns about their emotions, contact your physician or a mental health provider at school or in the community.