- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 22, 2001

There are many battlegrounds in America's war against terrorism, including our own country. Yet the most critical battleground is internal, for it is our hearts and minds our emotional health that is the terrorists' prime target. Their intention is to fuel fear until anxiety incapacitates us until we break. Thus, anthrax is used not as a weapon of mass destruction, but as an ongoing source of fear and anxiety. This is psychological warfare, and we must fight back by carefully attending to our emotional health. America's collective emotional strength her ability to carry on in times of adversity with courage, faith, clear thinking and determination is our greatest weapon. Inner strength is the antidote to fear, and will carry us through to victory.

But such strength does not come automatically or easily. In order to win the psychological war, two things must be accomplished that are seemingly antithetical. On the one hand, President Bush has asked the American people to relax and "go about their lives [and] go about their business" as usual. On the other hand, he has said that we must be vigilant, and if we "see something that is out of the norm and looks suspicious … notify local law authorities." Is it possible to relax and live a normal life in the midst of a war on terror? Is it possible to remain vigilant without becoming anxious and fearful? Yes, but only with effort here's how:

• Get good information. Keep up with the news, but only from the most reliable sources and only in small doses. Be sure to tune in to major addresses and press conferences from the administration or other top government officials, as that is the best source of accurate information. Limit your exposure to the never-ending flow of TV talking heads, and avoid altogether the Internet world of urban myths and rumors. Misinformation, exaggeration, obsession and unfounded fears add needlessly to your anxiety.

• Spend time with family and friends. Make time to be with family and friends, even if that means cutting back on work. Enjoy their company, share life's interests and have fun together. Remember that at a time like this they need you as much as you need them, and look for opportunities to help them out. Take pleasure in meeting the needs of those you care for, as this is a great antidote to self-absorption and anxiety. By all means avoid isolating yourself, since isolation magnifies fear and leads to loss of perspective.

• Seek spiritual strength. If you are a person of faith, act like it. Attend your church, synagogue or mosque regularly and participate in its activities. If you are a person of prayer, now is the time to get serious. Set aside a daily time at the start or finish of the day for prayer and meditation or study. There is nothing wrong with seeking God for the answers and perspective we long for at a time like this.

• Talk about it. Find a kindred spirit among your family members, friends or colleagues someone you can get together with regularly to discuss current events and how they impact you. Learn to be a good talker, but also a good listener as you share what's on your heart and mind. Draw others out, and let others draw you out, remembering that conversation and common sense helps keep things in perspective. Don't leave your thoughts and fears stuffed inside, unexamined, where they will eventually unnerve you.

• Take a break/seek help if needed. If the pressure simply gets to be too much, get away from it all by taking time off from work and/or home duties. Use some vacation time if necessary. If this is not possible, or if it does not relieve the stress, seek professional or pastoral counseling. Professional help is especially important if you find yourself experiencing panic attacks or depression, both of which can be triggered by traumatic events. Treatment including psychotherapy and/or medication can be very effective.

• Become a volunteer. Want to join the war effort? Volunteer with the USO or Americorps, or seek out the nearest hospital that could use some extra hands. There are mentorship programs whose mentors help children struggling to deal with the traumas of life, including September 11. Soon there will be a Civil Defense Service asking for volunteers to train, so as to help their community in time of crisis. These organizations, and others like them, are leading the way in the war against terror on the home front.

• Keep the faith. We're in this together. Remember that you are not alone many of your fellow citizens are experiencing exactly what you are. The challenge we all face is to keep the faith, stay confident and carry on. Every normal routine, every airplane you board deprives the terrorist of his goal. Allow yourself to take pride in the spirit of the nation as you see the plethora of waving flags and "United We Stand" signs.

Ultimately, the war on terror will be won in the hearts and minds of every American. This begins with the nation's leaders, who must demonstrate the courage, faith, clear thinking and determination necessary to overcome fear. Mr. Bush has set the standard by becoming ever more presidential and commanding, as he leads and comforts the nation in her time of testing. The heartfelt speeches and honest answers offered by the president, his Cabinet, and other top leaders like New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani have renewed faith in government. Their quick responses, such as creation of a new Cabinet position for homeland security, demonstrate a government determined to do everything that can possibly be done.

We too must rise to the occasion and become something more than what we were before September 11. Like those courageous generations who defended our freedoms in the past, we must stand firm against an enemy who would destroy us. But unlike the past, this war is being waged as much in our hearts and minds as it is on foreign battlefields. To win the psychological war, each of us must do our part to overcome fear. For when fear is defeated, so is the terrorist.

Timothy A. Kelly is a former mental health commissioner for Virginia.


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