Emotional Health

Random Acts of Violence: How to Avoid Living in Fear

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.



4082105788_17f2086a14_zPhoto by Roland Tanglao via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The attacks in Paris, followed by two attacks in the United States — at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and then in San Bernardino, Calif. — have raised our fear levels and have brought the issue of protecting ourselves to the forefront once again. It’s a confusing time for everyone though some on the political scene have sought to oversimplify it.

Often there seems like there’s a reason or a broader message or motive to the attacks, yet they are almost impossible to understand on a human level. The one thing that random acts of violence seem to have in common is their aim to express hatred. The immediate victims, those that die in the attacks, are unspeakably ill-used: innocents, often chosen for that very reason.

The victims’ terror is usually mercifully brief but the aftermath is also part of the crime. The killers’ goal is also to incite fear in the rest of us, and give us a sense that we have no control over our fate.

This is true, in that there are random things that we can never control, but most of the time, we don’t have to confront that fact so squarely. When it comes to staying safe we are all always playing the odds. We avoid dark alleys, we wear seat belts, we quit smoking or take up running. And here’s the dilemma: as individuals, we can’t predict when an attack like the one in San Bernardino might take place again, though some might try. We can avoid crowded places. We can stay home. We can keep “dangerous people” out of the country.

As studies have shown, it is relatively easy to establish false fears. This is what some politicians are doing when they argue that all Muslims should be barred from the US. This is based on false assumptions that could make the problem much worse. Not only will it serve to further alienate the Muslim population, it will vastly heighten non-Muslims’ distrust of them. An important study that demonstrated the ability to establish false fears was conducted in 1920.   A psychologist named John Watson, impressed by Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, wanted to see if he could instill fear in a young child. He selected a “normal” infant, called “Little Albert” and showed him a group of objects, including a white rat, none of which caused a fear response in the baby at first. But after repeatedly making a loud noise whenever he was shown the rat, Little Albert began to cry when he saw him. Soon enough he was afraid of all white furry objects, and then all white objects.

The way to “extinguish” a fear response is to have repeated exposure to it in a safe environment, having the chance to see and know the fearful object without the feared consequence. So, for example, for a long time after 9/11 I shuddered when I saw a jet flying above the Manhattan skyline. But after enough “sightings” without repetition of the dreaded expectation that it would fly into a building, my tension began to abate. The strategy to overcoming our fears is to become more familiar and integrated with them (and vice versa).

If we are isolated from Muslims, (who represent a total of 1.6 billion people worldwide) and our “exposure” to them is limited to news stories about terrorism, we are in danger of becoming a nation of Little Alberts who cannot distinguish a dangerous person from a friendly one. And we would put Muslims in the same position of isolation and distrust. Worse, we risk distancing ourselves from those who could be our greatest allies in keeping everyone safe — the vast majority of Muslims who are peaceful and lawful.

Dr. Richard A. Freidman, in an editorial in The New York Times last week,  wrote, that right now we need President Obama to be our therapist in chief and give us all a dose of cognitive therapy.

Cognitive therapy identifies mistaken and distorted thoughts that generate distress, and then challenges and corrects them. What the president needs to say to all Americans — over and over — is that although terrible, unpredictable things have happened, the country is not in peril. Such attacks are incapable of destroying us or coming close to bringing down Western civilization.

It is very important, at this moment, that our leaders help us minimize rather than maximize the fear that the terrorists have attempted to stir up. The perpetuation of ignorance and misguided policies are bound to encourage distorted thinking and inflame anxiety, not reduce it. 

Dr. Martin Bergmann, a very wise psychoanalyst who died last year at the age of 100, lived through many of the 20th century’s greatest crises, so I was very anxious to ask him how to help patients deal with their fears when I saw him again for our first supervision meeting after 9/11. He said that it was important to help people distinguish between the possible and the probable. In the early days after the World Trade Center attacks, New Yorkers were very fragile, and unexplained anthrax attacks and a plane crash in Queens kept the mood volatile. Anything seemed possible all of a sudden and rumors were rampant.

And yet, it’s true that the odds of being harmed in a terrorist attack remained very low, and no other attacks occurred in New York City. Actually, the facts are, when examined rationally, an American citizen is much more likely to die from a gunshot from someone he knows who has a personal beef rather than a terrorist agenda. Likewise, we all know that we are much more likely to die in the car on the way to the airport than we are in the plane.

But most of us fear the plane much more. One of the reasons is that it is a strange, unusual situation. The more familiar and habituated we are to situations and people, the less dangerous they seem.

Educating yourself and your family about what is really dangerous is the best way to manage fear and anxiety in these uncertain times.   

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  • Tspora October 28, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    I think isolated random acts of violence also need to be examined as these are perpetrated not for any underlying ideology but just randomly. There may not even be any attempt to justify the act it is just enacted and the victim is unlucky or maybe ther is more to it. Often the victim is a well known charity worker or a kind hearted soul or someone particularly good, maybe there is something in that. Those people in a dark place with dark influences will spot a light from a long way off and make a beeline for someone. Yes, they do pick out the person in a split second or in moments. I think there is a moment of connection often which the victim offers as they, being good, would do anyone. The perpetrator may recognise this but cannot deal with it and attacks. I was up close very close with my attacker and my heart was open as it is, I was lucky I wasn’t knifed but there was a connection for a moment, even in anger, and then he attacked.

  • Shirley December 14, 2015 at 10:25 am

    The solution is to use common sense. Something that is frequently in short supply! Thanks for this reassuring reminder.