Fighting Off Fear in the Era of Terrorism

(Note:  Even though this blog post is, at its core, about fear and not depression per se, many of us suffer from both.  So I felt it was fair game to write about it.–ALM)

With terrorist attacks becoming more pervasive in our society, and with terror groups becoming more determined to destabilize us, we must get better at coping with our emotions.

We must get stronger—I don’t mean militarily, because our military is getting smarter and more agile all the time. And I don’t mean physically, although God knows that’s gotta happen, given our rampaging epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and arthritis.

I mean psychologically.

We, the women of this country, must do whatever it takes to heal our wounds and strengthen our minds so that we can rise up as Feminine Warriors and declare that we cannot be intimidated and will not be bullied.

We need to do this for ourselves. We need to role model it for our children. And we need to be there for our country.

To accomplish this, we must learn to manage the terrifying thoughts that sometimes crash into our consciousness with their guns ablazing, and reign them in before they do us harm.

If we don’t, we’re just handing the terrorists a win.

Standing vigilant over our thoughts isn’t easy. Even with my training in psychiatric nursing, my service in the Army, and my overall mental toughness that came from a nightmarish divorce, those thoughts sometimes creep in without me realizing it.

Last week, while in the most serene environment imaginable, I actually allowed a fleeting image of carnage and disaster to completely hijack my brain and body.

I was sitting on the top deck of a cruise ship in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, bathed in blue skies and sunlight, relaxed, overfed, and deep in thought.   I was doing some writing when my ears picked up a sound that my distracted brain could not immediately place.   Because I was not paying attention to the activity around me, my brain interpreted it as—get this—a jet streaking across the sky. (It was nothing more than a metal cart being moved, but stay with me here…)

You can’t help what your brain does when it’s on autopilot. Those initial thoughts are going to pop up unbidden, and my brain went into high gear. I immediately thought, “Holy shit, was that a Navy jet buzzing the cruise ship?”

Right there is where I had the chance to put my brain back on course.

I could have looked around to see if there was another, more plausible answer (which I would have immediately found had I but looked), but instead I let down my usual guard and allowed the part of me that thrives on panic—the little girl part of me that was taught that small sounds could be warnings of bad things coming—to run wild.

I went from the absurd thought of “Why is a jet flying so close to the ship, 800 miles from land?” to the outrageous thought of, “Could that have been an RPG (rocket propelled grenade)? Attacking a cruise ship…maybe that’s their next set of targets…these fucking terrorists are always looking for something new…God, what would happen if the ship was hit by a missile? There’d be a huge explosion, the ship would shake violently…there’d be total panic and people injured who would need help. I wonder how fast Marc and I could get down to the 5th deck to our lifeboat…”

That is some crazy shit right there.

Guess what my body was doing while my brain was painting these dire (and might I say, highly unlikely) images?

Yep, reacting. BIG time.

My heart rate was climbing, my vision and hearing were sharpening (looking for further evidence of this impending doom), my brain was becoming more alert, my sense of anxiety was skyrocketing…and I was getting mad.

Now, just stop a moment and take a breath.

I WAS ON VACATION. ON A CRUISE SHIP. 800 MILES FROM HUMANITY. And I sent my body into full fight-flight mode, all by myself.

The terrorists never had to lift a finger.

Score: Terrorists 1, American Citizen 0.

Fortunately, it was at this point that I abruptly stopped the madness. I suddenly realized I was off the rails and said to myself, “STOP THIS. You’re doing this to yourself. There is no danger here. Just STOP IT.”

And I did.

Just like that.

I shook my head to clear the images, slowly re-oriented myself to the beautiful scene around me, looked over at my husband happily reading his Rick Reilly book, took a deep breath in, relaxed my facial muscles, relaxed my posture, and re-centered myself.

I didn’t allow myself to visualize being adrift at sea with no water, I didn’t imagine what the screams of pain from the others on the ship would sound like, and I didn’t picture the funeral that one of us might have to attend for the other.

I used to. Before joining the Army in 2004 and becoming more mentally resilient, I used to let the terrorists have an invisible grip on my throat.

There were times when I would get myself so upset, I’d actually begin to cry…over something that had not happened!

Some part of me must have believed that rehearsing these scenes in my head would actually prepare me to respond better.

If that strikes a chord in you, let me set you straight: there are some fundamental problems with this premise.

First, unless you are military-trained or become fluent in the martial arts, you are never going to be psychologically prepared for an attack. Fantasizing about terrorist attacks and reacting to them emotionally puts your body into a mini-crisis and doesn’t help you prepare for those chaotic moments one tiny bit. Only realistic simulation and rehearsal does that.

Second, the physiologic damage this mind game causes far outweighs any imaginary sense of control it may evoke. The mini-crisis I mentioned includes a dump of cortisol into your body, causing all kinds of inflammation and chemical changes. You don’t need this stress, trust me.

Third, and in my mind the most important reason to not go down this rabbit hole, is that every moment spent in the throes of this fantasy is a moment in time when you are not actually living. You are alive, sure, but you’re locked into a scene that is not your past, not your present, and not your future, leaving you functionally stranded among the non-living.

When you let your brain get hijacked like this, you suffer, America gets a tiny bit weaker…and those bastards earn a W in the Win column.

Don’t allow your mind to fall victim to these low-life’s twisted tactics. Rise up and join the Feminine Warrior Nation.




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