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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...


Bulliet says terrorists frequently exploit images of a group of masked individuals exerting total power over their captives to send the message that the act is a collective demonstration of the group's power rather than an individual criminal act.


"You don't have the notion that a certain person has taken a hostage. It's an image of group power, and the force becomes generalized rather than personalized," says Bulliet. "The randomness and the ubiquity of the threat give the impression of vastly greater capacities."


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."

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