While most of us were spending a sunny Easter weekend enjoying long brunches and having an Easter egg hunt, the world was shocked by yet another terrorist attack, this time in Sri Lanka. Having lived in South Asia for a few years, I was shocked to learn that one of the targets was a hotel that I actually stayed at during Easter holidays two years ago. Furthermore: having lived in the region for a while, I immediately could think of five people I know that were actually at the scene when the attack happened.
The bombing of churches in New Zealand earlier this year, trucks driving into a boulevard in Nice and a Christmas market in Berlin, a shooting in a tram in Utrecht: if you follow the news, it seems that there is no place in the world where you can live safely anymore. In recent years, it seems like ‘war’ and ‘terrorism’ isn’t something that only happens far away in unstable areas of the world. As a matter of fact, those places that deemed stable and safe seem to be the main targets for attacks nowadays.
You could spend hours every day watching, reading and listening to news related to these events. This level of exposure can significantly influence your worldviews and how you live your life. The aftermath of events like these can make people feel more vulnerable. And as cities go on alert because of the threat of future attacks, fear can color our daily routines and world views.
It is probably not a surprise that a terror attack can have a major impact on people’s mental health. But what sort of effects are common, and how long do they last?
Studies have shown that after a terrorist attack, psychological effects (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) are not only seen in victims and their families, but also in people that are living in a city when it’s attacked. For instance, a survey of Madrid residents one to three months after the attacks on a commuter rail line in 2004 found an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
In a 2005 study of London residents conducted a few weeks after the 7/7 attacks, 31% of respondents reported a significant elevation in stress levels and 32% reported an intention to travel less. A follow-up study conducted seven months later found that the elevated stress levels were significantly reduced. But, the study also noted that a residual level of worry remained. Many people reported relatively high levels of perceived threat to self and others, and a more negative world view.
We would expect to see an increase in psychiatric disorders among people who were directly affected, or who lived in the city at the time of the attack. But this can also happen in people who weren’t living in a city when it was attacked. A survey conducted soon after the September 11 attacks found that 17% of the US population living outside of New York City reported symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Six months later, that had dropped to 5.6%
A 2005 review of psychological research about the effect of September 11 highlighted the uptick in psychiatric symptoms and disorders immediately after the attacks and the relatively quick normalization in the following 6-12 months. However, people living closer to the area attacked, and thus more directly exposed, were more vulnerable to developing post-traumatic stress disorder, than people living further away.
Why do symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder increase in people who weren’t directly exposed? The explanation might be the intense media coverage of terror attacks. In the aftermath of September 11, a US study of more than 2,000 adults found that more time spent watching television coverage of the attacks was associated with elevated rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. In essence, a media-related contagion effect is created where people live and relive the attacks when they watch or read stories about them. This overexposure may, as argued by some, produce a subjective response of fear and helplessness about the threat of future attacks in a minority of adults.
Fear is a natural response to events like the attacks in Paris or New York. While everyone feels and reacts to fear differently, it can push people to make different decisions about employment, whom to socialize with, using public transportation such as buses and trains, congregating in public and crowded places, and traveling on airplanes.
Do you notice an increase in anxiety or stress after watching the news, or do you want to know more about PTSD? Read our next blog.