Silva Neves

Silva Neves
Psychosexual, Relationship and Couples Therapist

Monday, 25 July 2016

The Trauma of Terrorism

Terrorism is by definition a 'violent action for political purposes'. But that definition doesn't even begin to define what terrorism really is like for the innocent victims of such acts.
Because of its nature, it is a tremendous violent act, one that is completely unpredictable and it usually involves multiple death.
Being a victim of terrorism is to be in the location that the terrorist act took place, either having been directly injured by the act, or in the vicinity, being a witness to such violent action.
When this happens, the 'threat centre' of your brain (the amygdala) will instantly react sending all sorts of chemicals through your brain and nervous system to get your body into flight, fight or freeze, the normal physical response to threat.
As it is such a traumatic event, your mind and body is likely to be disrupted for a while straight after the attack. Some of the most common symptoms are:
  • Shaking: hands, shoulder, muscles, entire body.
  • Anxiety: being super sensitive to loud noise, or unexpected things happening 
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling acute anger, including feeling hatred towards self or others.
  • Feeling guilt, often with thoughts that you could have done more to help some people who died. 
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Poor concentration
  • Not making sense of life
  • Poor sleep
  • Dissociation: not feeling or thinking anything.
  • In shock or in denial: 'did it really happen?'
  • Withdrawal: wanting to isolate yourself.

These symptoms are normal to feel after surviving a terrorist attack. The best you can do soon after the attack is: 
  • Find close friends or family members you love, whom you can talk to and who can provide many hugs to you.
  • Allow yourself to feel the intense emotions of anger and hatred. Often people think that feeling angry and hatred is a bad thing to feel. But, in this instance, it is important to allow your mind and your body not to censor those feelings. It is important that you express those anger and hatred feelings in a safe space, without being aggressive or hurting anyone. You might want to do it on your own, or you might want to express those feelings to a loved one who will not judge you. If you express those feelings in a safe and non-judgemental way, they will not stay in your head and body forever, they will reduce eventually.
  • If you feel depressed and you need to draw the curtains and hide underneath your duvet for a while, do so.
  • If you have critical thoughts: 'I could have done more to help', 'I should have been able to protect people', 'I should have avoided it', 'It was my idea to go and see the fireworks in Nice, it's my fault', please do not listen to those thoughts and challenge them straight away. The reality is that the very nature of a terrorist attack is that it is unavoidable, unpredictable, there is nothing anybody can do better or differently not to make it happen or to protect others. There is nothing that you could have done better or differently. You have already done your best.

If the above symptoms persist after one month, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress and you may need to consider calling a psychotherapist who is specialised in trauma.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress are:
  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event in range of sensory forms: some people have disturbing images flashing, or inexplicable physical problems such as bowel problems, shaking. Some people hear things that belong to the traumatic memory, others may experience an odour linked with the traumatic event. Others just keep re-living the traumatic event as though it was happening right now. This set of phenomenon is called a flashback.
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma by avoiding situations or emotions. For example, you might want to avoid public transport because of an acute fear that another terrorist attack might happen. Or you can numb yourself, shutting off, so that you don't feel anything. We call this dissociation.
  • Chronic hyper-arousal of your nervous system. This is when you are always on alert. Your brain's threat centre, the Amygdala, is in over-drive and unable to calm down. This can cause multiple physical problems like rash, muscle tension, headaches or migraines, unexpected tears, or bouts of anger, IBS, dizziness, loss of sleep, loss of appetite, depression.

These symptoms are very unpleasant to experience. In some cases, they can re-traumatise you. It is important to treat them if you are still experiencing them after one month of the terrorist attack.

For some people, those symptoms can be to a high intensity level which will make it very hard to live a normal life. For example, experiencing very distressing flashbacks on a frequent basis means that you can't function at work, and will probably need to be off sick for a period of time. It can also disrupt your relationships, and can have severe consequences for your well-being. If the symptoms are to the level of intensity that it stops you from living your life, then you may have post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. It is important not to leave PTSD untreated.

Untreated trauma can cause:
  • Acute anxiety and panic attacks
  • Chronic sleep disturbance
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sexual dysfunctions
  • Difficulties with concentration
  • Difficulties with relationships
  • Addiction to substances like drugs, alcohol or behaviours like gambling or sex.
  • Chronic depression
  • Chronic compulsive behaviours, including compulsive eating or binge eating
  • Chronic phobias
  • Chronic irritability, anger or rage and mood swings
  • Acute guilt
  • Acute shame
  • Obsessive negative thoughts.

There are different psychological trauma treatments available. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing) is one of the most effective trauma treatment, which treats flashbacks, regulates the nervous system and processes the traumatic memory so that it stops being disruptive to your life.

For more information on trauma and trauma treatment click here:

Terrorism is happening all over the world and it has become a frequent occurrence to hear about awful attacks on innocent people. Nations are in grief, anger and mourning.

Those of us who were lucky enough not to have been there at the time of a terrorist attack, aren't spared any trauma, unfortunately. Trauma is 'contagious' in a way that if we hear awful traumatic stories, and see pictures of it, we become witness to the traumatic event, and therefore we can also develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

These days, it is so frequent to hear of terrorism attacks, as well as other hideous traumatic events that happen to unfortunate people around the world: a baby refugee dying whilst crossing seas, black people being gunned for no reasons, Brexit which torn our nation apart, post-Brexit racism, to name just a few common storylines that populate our newspapers, phones and tablets.
Our nervous system can become overloaded with hearing, watching or listening to too much pain, horror and terror.

Terrorism is a global trauma, and it traumatises us all in some ways. So it is important that we look after ourselves even more than usual:
  • Switch off the news feed, watch a comedy instead.
  • Practice Yoga, for a bit of balance in an unstable world.
  • Self-care: eat good food and have plenty of sleep. 
  • Spend more time with friends and loved ones: hug, laugh, love.

In those dark times, it is important to make more of an effort to open our arms to our loved ones, spend more time with them and cherish those loving relationships.

We are not in control of extremist people wanting to kill us. We are not in control of how our politicians respond to those crisis. But each of us can make a choice of Love. Loving yourself and the people close to you, with no judgements. 

Silva Neves - 25th July 2016