Emotional Health

Trigger Alert: The Baby Boomers and Nuclear Anxiety


Dear Dr. Ford:

I am in my late sixties, retired, and my husband and I were looking forward to a peaceful period in our lives going forward. We have saved well for our later years, and now have a modest but pleasant home near my daughter, son-in-law, and their three children.

I have found that instead, I am becoming increasingly nervous and worried by the divisiveness in our politics. Nothing worries me more than the situation with North Korea. I am old enough to remember when nuclear war was our chief worry, and I cannot understand why people don’t seem to take this threat more seriously. Our President tweets about nuclear war and then football with equal fury. Meanwhile, the media seems to have given more space to the football story this week.

Is there anything I can do to calm down? Am I overreacting? I am especially worried for my grandchildren. They deserve a chance to live full lives, but I feel our leaders are not taking steps to protect their future.



Dear Madeleine:

Most baby boomers (born just after World War II), like you, been experiencing a special kind of anxiety these past weeks as the cycle of insults and threats between the American President and his North Korean counterpart have escalated. While no one is immune to the fear of nuclear war, we grew up with a generation of adults who took the threat very seriously. And we have vivid memories of a few days in October 1962 when the whole world held its collective breath as we waited to see if our leaders had the skill and grace to disentangle us from a near-fatal disaster known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Those of us who lived through it have a real-life experience of expecting an apocalypse. And these fears were not based on a conspiracy theory or religious cult. The major news outlets were all saying that two great powers, the United States and the USSR, were on the brink of an “atomic war,” as we used to call it. History tells us, in retrospect, that we actually had no idea how close we really were.

There are good reasons why these are triggers for your anxiety. When you were growing up, it didn’t take much to stir up people’s fear about nuclear holocaust. Even since Hiroshima and Nagasaki it had been omnipresent, like a form of psychic atomic fallout. When the Soviets acquired “the bomb,” these fears escalated and helped contribute to the “Red Scare.” Fears of communism took on an almost hysterical tone, and in the 1950s, a corrupt Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, took them to a new low as he began to investigate “communist traitors” who might have infiltrated the government.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens were taught to prepare themselves for nuclear war. Air raid sirens were common, and signs for shelters were everywhere. School children did drills during which they were instructed how to hide underneath their desks. People built bomb shelters in their yards and stocked them with the supplies needed to last them through the worst of the fallout.

Gail Collins writes in The New York Times, “Back in the day, I remember doing duck-and-cover exercises in grade school and listening to the nuns announce — rather cheerfully, I felt — that the world would probably come to an end before we made it to junior high. Never thought I’d be reliving those days in the 21st century.”

There wasn’t much cheer about the subject. I remember my parents dining with a couple who said they would not let anyone but family members hide out in their backyard bomb shelter. Many years later I learned that the husband was an undercover CIA operative — his specialty, Soviet affairs. Was he responding to the culture in the Agency when he built his shelter, or did he know something we didn’t know?

Madeleine, it is clear to me that your reactions are easily understood and expected. Anyone who grew up in the culture of nuclear anxiety would feel the same. As children we were listening, and with our young ears we picked up how much anxiety surrounded this topic. When Collins jokes about not making it through middle school, the prevailing opinion was that nuclear war was practically inevitable. I certainly heard this message. When I imagined my future, I thought it might be irresponsible to plan on having children because they wouldn’t live full lives, as you said.

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  • Patricia. Moscatello September 30, 2017 at 9:03 am

    I have not wanted to think about this conflict between our country and N Korea. It creeps into my thoughts daily. However your article brought to mind those memories of under the desk drills and bomb shelters that I had stuffed somewhere in my mind, wanting to forget the stress of those times. Now I understand where my recent anxiety has come about. Thank you for the suggestions to overcome the fears.