Americans (and probably others) are feeling vulnerable right now. We are being warned that terrorists will strike again, but we have no idea how, when, or where. The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has shaken our belief that we are immune from terrorism. The possibility of death from a terrorist attack has replaced our fear of sharks at the beach.
We don't like to feel vulnerable. Hurt and vulnerability are two of the most difficult emotions for most of us. Almost any emotion is easier to tolerate. Getting angry at someone who hurt us is often a way to not feel hurt or vulnerable. Even depression - in the form of "feeling sorry" for ourselves - is easier to tolerate.
How will we deal with this feeling? In many different ways, I imagine - but we won't tolerate just feeling vulnerable for very long. Two of the most common responses to feeling vulnerable are:
- Getting Angry. If we feel hurt or vulnerable we frequently want to
strike back at the other party. Our anger gives us back a feeling of
power. Instead of the scary feeling of being vulnerable to being hurt
we are hurting someone else.
- Getting Depressed. When we pull back into our shell we don't feel quite as vulnerable. While depression often has it roots in brain chemistry, at other times depression is a response to a situation.
As much as we don't like feeling vulnerable, there are times when we truly are. Not too long ago many of us felt invulnerable to terrorism. In hindsight this feeling if invulnerability was not realistic. As fierce as our military might may be, we remain vulnerable to terrorism.
Another factor in our reaction to terror is our denial of death. Denial is a defense mechanism that is usually considered to be pathological. To use denial as a defense is to simply act as if something is not true. It flies in the face of reality - except when we deny death and act as if we won't die. In order to keep on living most of us do this every day.
The denial of death is a little like driving down a two-lane road with cars coming at us in the other lane. In order to drive on such roads we pretend that the line painted in the middle of the road is a physical barrier, and that cars can't hit us. If we worried about every car that we met crossing the line and hitting us we would be unable to drive.
Warnings about possible attacks leave many of us feeling helpless. Following any new terrorist attacks many of us will again see potential terrorists every time we fly. We will wonder about the guy in the shadows who looks a little different than us. Our denial of the reality of terrorism has broken down, and we feel vulnerable. It's up to us what we do with those feelings.
For more information on emotions and terrorism:
- Microbiologist: Facts About Anthrax Argue for Greater Calm
- Share Your feelings since the attacks
- The Psychological Effects of Trauma
- Facts about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Experts weigh-in on Helping Children deal with the Violence
- Links to the best Online trauma resources
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