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Coping With Psychological Warfare at Home

Learn how to defend yourself from the psychological terror that war brings.

What Is Psychological Terror? continued...


Psychiatrist Ansar Haroun, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves in the first Gulf War and more recently in Afghanistan, says that terrorist groups often resort to psychological warfare because it's the only tactic they have available to them.


"They don't have M-16s, and we have M-16s. They don't have the mighty military power that we have, and they only have access to things like kidnapping," says Haroun, who is also a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.


"In psychological warfare, even one beheading can have the psychological impact that might be associated with killing 1,000 of the enemy," Haroun tells WebMD. "You haven't really harmed the enemy very much by killing one person on the other side. But in terms of inspiring fear, anxiety, terror, and making us all feel bad, you've achieved a lot of demoralization."

Why Distant Terrors Trouble Us

When a horrific event happens, experts say it's natural to feel disturbed, even if the act occurred thousands of miles away.


"The human reaction is to put yourself in the situation because most of us have good mental health and have the capacity to empathize," says Haroun. "We put ourselves in the shoes of the unfortunate person."


Witnessing an act of psychological terror can also disrupt our belief system, says Charles Figley, PhD, director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute.


"We walk around, psychologically, in a bubble, and that bubble represents our belief system and values," says Figley. "Most often we assume incorrectly that other people have the same values and social niceties as we do. When that is violated or challenged, the first response is usually an effort to protect our beliefs and, in other words, to deny that it actually happened."


When confronted with proof of terror, such as pictures of atrocities, Figley says there are a few different ways in which people typically react:


  • Suggest that the perpetrators are not like us in any way, that they are inhumane.

  • Become fearful in the sense that they feel that they are living in an uncaring and unsafe world because the bar of inhumanity has been lowered even further.

  • Believe that it's only a temporary manifestation that can be explained away or deconstructed by specific things that have taken place, such as "if we hadn't done this, then that would not have happened."


"It's uncomfortable believing that the world is less safe, so we have to imagine or construct a scenario that will allow us to feel more safe again and resist change," says Figley.

How to Cope

Experts say the key to coping with psychological terror is to find a healthy balance.

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