On Thursday 17 August 2017, a van mowed down crowds in the tourist hotspot of Las Ramblas in Barcelona, leaving 14 people dead and 100 more injured.
It is horrifying news and, sadly, far from the first such atrocity to hit Europe in recent months. There have been three terror attacks on UK soil this year alone, with the Manchester Arena suicide bomber incomprehensibly targeting young female concert-goers who had been innocently enjoying an Ariana Grande gig. Thinking that it could have been you or a loved one among the victims can be an extremely scary and unsettling thought.
Psychologists have explained why so many people feel anxious when rolling 24-hour news is dominated by a terror attack close to home. It is because, when something threatens ourselves or people “just like us”, our sense of safety is rocked and the amount of stress drug cortisol in the brain rises. Naturally, and often subconsciously, we begin desperately searching for reassurance that everything is alright. The closer you feel to an incident, the more anxious you are likely to feel in its wake, and the more random and seemingly unstoppable the act (such as a vehicle attack), the harder it can be to feel safe again.
If you suffer from anxiety, described by the NHS as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe” anyway, news of a terror attack can trigger it and make managing it tougher. It can also exacerbate feelings of extreme sadness or hopelessness in those with depression.
Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of leading anxiety disorder charity Anxiety UK, told Shevolution that as fear and anxiety are common in society in general, it “stands to reason that these feelings rise in the aftermath of an attack of the nature experienced [in Barcelona], both in those that might have already been living with an anxiety disorder and indeed in those who were previously anxiety free”.
She recommends practising the technique of mindfulness, which centres on “keeping your mind in the present moment; not thinking back to the past nor indeed projecting ahead to the future.” Try the popular mindfulness app Headspace to help you learn how to do this.
The charity suggests paying attention to your breathing. Stressed or anxious people tend to breathe too quickly and over-breathe, putting them at risk of a panic attack. Slower, controlled breathing can reduce anxiety levels and evoke a feeling of calm. The following breathing exercise is an example of something that can be done quickly to almost instant effect:
- Breathe in through your nose for four seconds
- Hold for two seconds
- Breathe out through your mouth for six seconds
- Repeat 10 times
- Place hand on your chest to feel it rise and fall with each breath
Being kind to yourself is also important. “Think positive affirmations such as: ‘This is anxiety, it will pass. I have felt like this before and this feeling passed. I am safe and in control’,” said Lidbetter.
Distraction too has a role when it comes to relieving anxiety in the short-term. She suggested trying the following 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise while out and about:
Imagine throwing an anchor to the ground that is you grounding yourself.
- Count five things you can see
- Count four things you can hear
- Count three things you can touch
- Count two things you can smell
- Take one deep breath.
Longer-term support for those with anxiety takes the form of psychological/talking therapies and/or medications such as antidepressants. Go to your GP if your symptoms begin affecting your ability to live a normal day to day life and stopping you from doing the things you enjoy.
If you feel unable to talk to someone close to you about your anxiety, you can call the Samaritans for free on 116 123 or email [email protected] if you are not comfortable using the phone. Call the Anxiety UK helpline on 08444 775 774 or visit mental health charity Mind’s online support community Elefriends for support and friendship online.
Mind pointed us towards their page on how to cope with traumatic events when we asked them for some more tips on how best to deal with anxiety at concerning times such as these. “There is no one way to react to trauma and however you are feeling, the most important thing to remember is this is OK,” it reads, emphasising that this applies whether or not you were directly involved in the incident.
One way to bring your anxiety levels down is to turn off the news. Constant exposure to tragic stories can make us feel that such events are more commonplace than they are. Do not feel guilty about turning away to give your mind a chance to recuperate. There is no need to pretend that terror attacks do not happen and enter a state of denial, but you can take positive action by making yourself happy and passing joy onto others, too.
Try making a list of everything and anything that makes you feel good, to remind yourself of everything there is to celebrate about life. Terrible things happen, but a lot of wonderful things happen, too.
Mindfulness, as mentioned by Lidbetter, helps many people with anxiety. It is important to accept and acknowledge anxious or negative thoughts and fully feel them (try floating with, rather than fighting anxiety so as not to stress yourself out even more), but practising how to then park these and resume your daily life, paying attention to the present moment, can prove invaluable.
Maintaining a routine is key, which is why we are often encouraged to “carry on as normal” by leaders. It is normal to feel more anxious the first time you go to a crowded public place or use public transport after a terror attack but avoidance behaviour can be damaging. Slowly but surely, by going about your normal life as much as possible, your anxiety levels should begin to decrease. The terrorists want to disrupt and ruin our way of life: remain vigilant and report anything concerning if needs be, but otherwise, don’t let them.
Try to rationalise your thoughts and put them into perspective. The odds of dying in a terrorist attack are tiny (about one in 20 million, experts have claimed) but the possibility will always be there – just like getting struck by lightning or being caught up in an accident or natural disaster. Dwelling on it will stop you living life to its fullest. Staying active, be it by running or something more gentle such as yoga or walking, can help when you are feeling wound-up and tense.
If you are struggling to cope, you should not be afraid of seeking help. No medical professional or person worth knowing will judge you and they can help you get the support you need to recover.