Deflating the fear

War, terrorism, and the TV news are fanning Americans' anxieties, but practical steps can help people find a stronger sense of security.

The advent of war concentrates the thoughts of Americans - and the world - on events that almost everyone expects will change the course of history in unpredictable ways.

Apprehensions about this war have been building worldwide in recent weeks, and in the US, they have merged with the persistent anxieties about terrorist threats and a declining economy.

Earlier this month, when Americans were asked by Gallup what they considered "the most important problem facing the country," two concerns tied for No. 1: The "fear of war/feelings of fear in this country," and the state of the economy. Terrorism was third.

When the congregation at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco held a forum last week to discuss the prospect of war, pastor Laird Stuart found that "the level of apprehension was high that we are about to do something that has enormous implications, and that in itself is unnerving."

America has confronted periods of fear before, including the threat of nuclear annihilation during the cold war from missiles very close to US shores. What makes today's situation so difficult, say people who regularly counsel Americans, is the dramatic shock of US vulnerability at a time of unprecedented prosperity, combined with a cultural environment that intensifies rather than ameliorates people's anxieties.

It need not be so, they say. Terrorism happens mostly in the imagination, and not only do Americans have the resources to deal with their anxieties, but many of the fears troubling people today are unwarranted.

"Having dedicated my life to helping people put fear in its natural place, it's hard to watch the country be so undone by unnecessary anxiety," writes Gavin de Becker, a national expert on predicting and managing violence, in "Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism."

Pastoral counselors, therapists, and terror-risk experts agree that Americans can take spiritual and other practical steps to free themselves from such fears, and use the anxieties born of ignorance to inform themselves more fully about the challenges facing the US.

Fear is helpful only when it signals a presence of immediate danger. When it's based on memory or imagination, it is unwarranted, says Mr. de Becker.

What's needed first is to accept the new situation in this country - there are no security guarantees - but recognize that this has always been part of the human condition.

"We're just waking up to what the rest of the world has been living with for a long time," says therapist Robert Gerzon. "We've had tremendous success through our technology and government programs in building up an unprecedented sense of security, and it has created a feeling that life should come with a guarantee, and it doesn't. What we need to do is deepen our spiritual life."

At the same time, experts like de Becker - whose firm has designed threat-assessment systems for the US Supreme Court, and congressional and local police forces - help people sort out the real nature of threats versus the "terrorism by TV" that he says exaggerates and misinforms. He details in his book why Americans should no longer fear air hijackings and why any biochemical attack would likely be less dangerous or pervasive than they have been led to assume.

High on everyone's list of practical steps to reduce fear is this advice: Go on a media diet! Reduce consumption of TV news to one program a day, and read newspapers instead. Avoid the gossip and speculation of developing stories until there is some genuine perspective on what's happened.

"The broadcast media wants to get people's attention, and the way to do that psychologically is to make people anxious," says Mr. Gerzon, author of "Finding Serenity in an Age of Anxiety." "Stay informed but in a way that doesn't fill your mind with images of catastrophe on a daily basis."

According to Barry Glassner, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Americans have long been afraid of the wrong things because of distortions by the media and politicians. His studies in the 1990s showed, for example, that Americans had exaggerated fears about crime when the crime rate was declining and about drug use by young people when such use was at record lows.

The print media have done a good job on the terrorism problem, he says, but TV's nonstop, repetitive news coverage whips up fears. And, he adds, "I haven't yet heard any reasonable explanation from government officials about why the general public should be put on high alert when they can take no specific actions."

While experts have compassion for the position public officials find themselves in, they say most of their warnings have tended simply to heighten fears, as polls demonstrate.

Anxieties feed on the unknown, and should spur people to educate themselves about the real nature of the risks. The aftermath of 9/11 and concerns over the coming war also point to the need, they say, for Americans to make more efforts to learn about the world situation and relations with other cultures.

Managing 'inner talk'

Another key step in deflating fear is "to pay attention to our inner talk - the way we talk to ourselves about what's going on," Gerzon says. "The truth is we are still very, very safe in this country, but what I call the 'toxic voice' likes to threaten us with what might happen, and the possibilities are endless."

What's most needed is "to seek serenity and security on a deeper, spiritual level, and to respond to the situation with love," he adds. "That's the message of people in history who've dealt with unusually difficult situations, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela." As Mr. Mandela himself has said, "As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

This is what many clergy, chaplains, and pastoral counselors across the US are aiming for. In New York, Niles Goldstein, the founding rabbi of New Shul in Greenwich Village, says many in the city are still "confused and profoundly anxious" about events in the world.

He's working on his own spiritual growth and says he finds help in being part of a community and in spiritual practice. He encourages people to turn to prayer on their own - even if it means first praying for the capacity to pray - and in regular worship.

"People want quick fixes, and it's sometimes like pulling teeth to get them to see the value of organized prayer in worship services. But if you wanted to lose weight, and went to the gym once every three months instead of two to three times a week, you'd get no benefit," he says. "Seven out of 10 worship experiences may not be riveting, but the two or three that bring the epiphany we need wouldn't happen without that repetition."

On the West Coast, terrorism isn't as immediate a concern as the dramatic loss of jobs from the dotcom bust and the rapidly declining real estate values.

"Now there's the fear the economy isn't coming back for many years - and may never come back to match the expectations people once had of the Bay Area becoming a high-tech financial megacenter," says Dr. Stuart. And the impending war is raising apprehensions that things will get tougher because of the economic costs.

Stuart is preaching a series of services on the Lord's Prayer, he says, "to affirm not only the value of prayer for our personal lives but to restore people's sense of the presence, care, and grace of God in all circumstances."

The church community has created an active ministry offering networking and support to people out of work. When war begins, they'll reach out to families in the community whose relatives are in the armed forces to offer needed economic or other support.

In times like these, "people want to do something," Stuart says.

Col. Rees Ryder Stevens has served as an Army chaplain during combat, and for all the families of the 82nd Airborne Division during Desert Storm.

"It's harder to be a spouse waiting at home than to be on the front lines, where it's very clear what you have to deal with and pray about," he says.

Along with conducting family life support groups, he's helped families with creative ways to pray about the situations their loved ones are in. "One of the important things," he adds, "is to help people get from a 'prayer can't hurt' attitude to prayer really proclaiming God's presence, power, and grace."

Confronting moral choices

Coming to terms with anxiety often calls for much more than seeking comfort, community, and a sense of security. For many, these anxieties signal a genuine need to grapple with deeper concerns, such as moral issues related to the coming war, says David Augsburger, who teaches pastoral counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

"Many Americans are facing this war with a significant layer of troubling doubts - that this action contradicts some of our deepest national values and stirs consciences about the Vietnam experience," Dr. Augsburger says. As a counselor, he's found that for some it has meant finding the courage "to weigh moral decisions carefully and stand against decisions of the government that they perceive are not just."

Johann Christoph Arnold, author and senior pastor of the Bruderhof community in New York, has traveled to many middle schools and high schools over the past year, where he says he's found many children are very fearful. He and NYPD detective Steven McDonald are making it their mission to urge the students and other Americans to take a liberating step - to forgiveness.

Mr. McDonald tells the children that the bullets that paralyzed him were acts of terror just like the planes that hit the World Trade Center. "You should hear the gasps when he says, 'I forgave my assailant, who was a teenager like you,' " Mr. Arnold says.

He hopes this excruciating time will help Americans move beyond "an eye for an eye," which only creates more violence and hatred. One has to forgive to be truly free, he says.

For some, the situation also highlights the world's interconnectedness. "Unless everyone feels safe and has a future, none of us are really safe and have a future we can depend on," Gerzon suggests. "It means keeping in touch with the reality of people in other parts of the world who are distressed, and considering how we as a nation should respond."

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