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The Psychology of Bioterrorism: How to Fight Back

As Dan Rather says, "Our greatest threat is not anthrax. Our greatest threat is fear." But how can we fight back and conquer our fears of an unknown enemy?

Robert Butterworth, PhD, is a Los Angeles-based trauma psychologist. He believes that this widespread anxiety is actually a terrorist victory. According to Butterworth, this is the psychological equivalent of Chinese water torture. Only six people have been infected with anthrax, but thousands have been tested, hundreds are taking antibiotics, and millions are afraid for their lives.

Butterworth feels part of the solution is that leaders should give clear messages that have a balanced approach. And we have to help each other. The people who are having the hardest time are those who are alone. There are so many stories about people wanting to bond over this: Matchmakers are doing a booming business, people are postponing divorces, and no one wants to be alone.

Uncertainty concerning future acts of terrorism in the US breeds fear and a new type of anxiety not seen in past disasters, which Butterworth calls "anticipatory anxiety." During this period of uncertainty, in a psychological sense, it's what we don't know and that we fantasize about that can hurt us.

The adage, "The only fear is fear itself," rings true, especially in this case. Fantasy breeds fear, and with all the talk and speculation concerning future terrorist actions involving everything from biological to chemical agents it's no wonder that the fear of the future can be more unsettling than the trauma and depression resulting from past events--even the events of September 11th.

Terrorist psychology as a method of societal destabilization is more concerned with the perception of reality than with reality itself. Thus, it's not surprising that "anticipatory anxiety"-- fear that what one may fantasize could occur as a result of terrorist actions--can be more psychologically damaging to a society than the actual reality that does unfold.

This is why people are stocking up on disaster supplies, canceling vacations, not flying, afraid of being assembled in large groups, and purchasing gas masks and antibiotics in record numbers. As a society we are now more vulnerable to anticipatory anxiety since we have not had time, in a psychological sense, to recover from all that has occurred in a mere 6 weeks.

Unlike past disasters, such as the bombing in Oklahoma City in which we had a psychological recovery period in which things settled down and we had time to catch our breath and mourn as a group, we don't have time to grieve and heal. We're actually speeding up and at war. We're too anxious even to be depressed.

In order to win this psychological battle of fear, it's important for people not to get swept up in unsubstantiated rumors of doom--not to panic and give in to hysteria. The actual reality is that we're angry and scared but going to work. Children are nervous but going to school. We're not hiding n our homes but starting to get back on planes and the stock market has stabilized. Remembering that the psychological goals of the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington were not just to topple our buildings but also to destroy our way of life.

In order to dispel the flame of hysteria our leaders need to convey a sense of trust and clarity. Ambiguous and confused messages breed fear in a population that needs to believe in the consistency of leadership. Truth also cannot fall victim to hysterics. We must accept and seek the truth since research on mass behavior reveals that hiding facts breeds more rumor and falsehood.

The news media also has a responsibility to provide a sober counterpoint to sensationalism that may increase not only ratings but fear and irrational behavior.

As individuals we need to continue to fight hysteria with reality. Most Americans who are not connected to media or government organizations have little to fear.

Helping ourselves and raching out to those who may need emotional support should be every American's goal. Remembering that our actions as a society will be a true test of the American character. Proving to the world that the American Psyche--although bruised--is far from being disabled!

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