With what seem like increasingly frequent acts of terrorism dominating the headlines recently, it can be difficult to feel safe. For many of us, a constant “what if?” accompanies us on public transport and in crowded areas, momentarily dampening what once were exciting, carefree or routine experiences.
Despite not wanting to let terrorism impact our daily lives, sometimes we avoid doing things that we used to altogether. I know I have felt this way and there can be some shame in admitting this.
Actually, it’s really understandable that we feel this way. In physiological terms, it is our fear response trying to protect us from danger. Getting to know what is happening in our minds and bodies in these circumstances can help us to put the threat into perspective.
Our response to terrorism is disproportionate
In reality, despite the recent attacks in the UK and globally, statistics show that we are still more likely to perish as a result of drowning in our own bathtub than as a result of a terrorist attack, according to the New York Times.
That’s the thing about terrorism. It instils a culture of fear by targeting key locations (such as music concerts and well-known landmark areas like Westminster and London Bridge) to get on the news and into our consciousness.
Highly accessible media images can make the threat seem more prevalent than it actually is and once we start to feel that this is happening “everywhere,” doubt creeps in. This can stifle our wholehearted enthusiasm to fearlessly undertake our lives in the way we may have used to.
Using our minds and bodies to feel safe
So, what can make us feel safer in this context? One useful thing can be to realise that fear is a response that is created in our own bodies, not something “out there” that is happening to us. That’s not to diminish the harrowing nature of recent events, but to recognise that their impact can linger inside us far beyond the actual events themselves.
The more the feeling of fear remains in our minds and our bodies at times when we are safe, the less safe we feel. Just think, when you’re at home, sitting in the lounge or before you go to sleep at night, you may be feeling afraid when thinking about recent events or about what might happen in the future.
Thinking excessively in this way detracts from the present moment, the part of our lives that we are experiencing now. The chance of something actually happening to you in those moments is very unlikely, whether you’re at home, at work or out and about. Noticing this can help us to regain some perspective over the scale of the danger.
How the body responds to fear
What we experience at these times of perceived danger is the stimulation of our limbic system, or “emotional brain” at the thought of danger. This simulated threat in the mind can seem almost as real as the danger itself.
When the mind creates “what if?” scenarios that take us out of the present moment, we’re in danger of handing over our personal power to forces outside our control. And while some things are out of our control, there are ways in which we can have more agency over our own experience, which help us to enjoy and feel more relaxed in the present – or most of the time when we actually are safe.
Working with ourselves to relax
Here’s a simple two-minute exercise to try next time you may be feeling anxious about this:
1. If you can, sit down with your feet on the ground in front of you. Focus on your physical body, becoming aware of the weight of your body in the chair (or standing if you can’t sit down). Feel the pull of gravity on your body and how the chair or the floor is taking your weight.
2. Take a few deep breaths, focussing on making the exhale long and slow. Look around you and notice that right now, you are somewhere safe. Then, focus on the physical feelings that you are experiencing in your body. You may feel a fast heartbeat, a feeling in your stomach, chest, or somewhere else. You may be holding tension in areas of your body. Focus on how your body is feeling, rather than any thoughts in your mind.
3. Try to bring compassion to the feelings you are experiencing, in the way that you may respond if a loved one or a child was afraid, instead of pushing them away. Then, say to yourself in your head or out loud, “even though I feel afraid, right now I’m safe,” or a variation on this that feels right for you. Keep breathing, long and slow and repeat this to yourself a couple of times.
The idea with this technique is not to push away the feelings, or to beat yourself up for feeling them, but to gently acknowledge their presence inside you while noticing that your surroundings are safe.
Using mindful techniques like this can help us to feel more relaxed, loving and able to enjoy the present moment. As we navigate our lives through what can feel like an increasingly uncertain world, drawing on our inner resources is something that is always available to us.
Meeting the impacts of terrorism with humanity and compassion can help us to regain our sense of personal power in the face of these frightening and deeply sad events. It’s worth a try – in the words of an old Japanese proverb, “fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”
If you are interested, you can find out more about this type of technique at bemindful.co.uk.