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Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2001 / 7 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Robert R. Butterworth

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When fantasy is deadlier than reality -- UNCERTAINTY OVER future acts of terrorism in the United States is breeding a new type of panic not seen here in past disasters - anticipatory anxiety. It is defined as trauma focused not on recuperating from shocking and mind- numbing events such as those on Sept. 11 but fear and uncertainty of what is to come.

For a country new to terrorism on its soil, the unknown is especially frightening. Without a frame of reference, we create a scenario that is more foreboding. Fantasy breeds fear, and with all the speculation of future terrorist attacks involving everything from biological weapons to chemical agents, it's no wonder that dread over the future is rampant.

After disasters such as school shootings or earthquakes, psychologists try to keep anxious people away from each other. During a debriefing, it is important to speak to victims of trauma softly and to be calm in their presence. People must be told they're not going crazy - that they're normal. They need to be able to verbalize how they feel.

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. This is the terrorist goal. Unlike past disasters, including the Oklahoma City bombing, we had a psychological recovery period in which things settled down. We had time to catch our breath and mourn as a group. Since Sept. 11, we haven't had time to grieve. We haven't had time to heal. We're actually speeding up and at war. We're too anxious even to be depressed.

In the case of anthrax, it's not about the numbers who are infected but the inherent nature of a biological agent. It's unseen, like a terrorist hidden among us ready to strike without warning. Most people may not be diseased by the microbe, but we're infected by fear.

This is the ultimate purpose of terrorist psychology - to destabilize society by creating a mental state in which security is suddenly lost. For humans, there are two sources of security - the security of your family and the security of your physical environment. Terrorism has the ability to destroy both.

So it's not surprising that anticipatory anxiety can be more psychologically damaging to a society than the actual reality that unfolds. Several people get anthrax but millions panic. This is why people here are stocking up on antibiotics, canceling vacations, avoiding large crowds and purchasing gas masks in record numbers.

For all of us who haven't been swept up in the panic, it is our duty to help those who are struggling against it. For a society that prides itself on individualism, this will take getting used to.

Robert R. Butterworth, a clinical psychologist, is director of International Trauma Associates, a Los Angeles-based firm Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Robert R. Butterworth