What are the Emotional Effects of Terror?

Fear, Stress and Trauma

Fear is a part of life whether it is fear of war and terrorism, or the general fears, like those of intimacy, abuse, inadequacy, a physical disease, surviving a natural disaster, or living with chronic pain. Many have written about the traumas some adults face, and this article discusses the emotional effects of terror. Research explains that most people who are exposed to a terrifying event do not have lasting problems. However, many people may have mild anxiety reactions, and 20% or more may develop serious emotional distress. People should consider receiving professional help if the emotional distress does not diminish over time, or if stress levels interfere with the ability to perform.

There is no right or wrong way to respond to terrifying events, and how one reacts varies from person to person. Understandably some respond with feeling helpless and not wanting to believe. Over time, these feelings may escalate to extreme anxiety, fear and despair. Some may relive the event in the form of a flashback, have difficulty concentrating, experience extreme fear, and notice an increase in health problems.

The Effects of Terror

Stress Immediate effectsImmediate Effects:  Fear triggers the fight or flight response, and people decide whether to let the fear take control, or make a split second decision to run. Do they fight? Do they try to minimize the impact of the fear?  Does the fear roll them over to the point of not being able to respond and they freeze?  Looking back in time, some may be satisfied or have regrets about how the crisis was managed. It depends on how people feel about how they responded during that moment of crisis. While fear is not at all a desirable feeling, understanding the way we react to it is fundamental along with a basic understanding of the Central Nervous System is important. The knowledge this understanding provides helps people realize that they are capable of taking sensible steps even in the toughest, most terrifying situations.

In the immediate aftermath of a terrifying event, it is expected to experience fear. People process and react to terrifying events differently. These reactions depend on past experiences (past traumas), expectations of the present, and future concerns of a traumatic event happening again. Initially, we would all tend to wonder if the same type of event could happen again, and we would try to think of different ways protect ourselves in the future. Sometimes people replay the terrifying event in their minds as if it is a tribute, and gradually the fear, and memory fades within a short period of time.

Short term effects of stressShort Term Effects: In the first few days or weeks after the terrorizing incident, everyone feels anxiety provoking aftereffects. Everyone experiences distinct individual feelings. These feelings are those that each person tends to be aware of whenever a situation goes wrong in their lives, and the feelings should seem familiar. As mentioned, everyone feels something different after experiencing a terrifying event and these reactions can be terror, anger, guilt, shame, anxiety or depression. Some people will feel less of these aftereffects, and when they do, they will experience them less intensely. These short term effects are common, even when they are strong, and may seem ridiculous. Those who have these powerful feeling states have learned throughout their lives to cope with the high levels of stress, which usually will subside within a month or two.  If the short-term feelings decrease in intensity each day, the feelings will subside with time, and without the need for professional assistance.

Long term effects of stressLong Term Effects: Long term effects may appear a few months later, or take years to emerge, because the core problem began in childhood where a terrifying event was originally experienced. As children, we developed our own distinctive style of protecting ourselves and it worked during that time. As adults we still have childhood ways of protection hidden in the back of the mind, and we modify the way we emotionally protect ourselves based on the degree of security we feel in the world. When people experience terror, the way the adult has learned to emotionally protect is challenged, and they are tempted to return to childhood thoughts about safety. If people had a nurturing, fearless childhood, this revisiting might only mean that they seek out family and friends to receive comfort.

However, if someone has had an abusive childhood or experienced a traumatic event, the return to childhood ways of protection might mean following a coping style that does not work as an adult. One of the most damaging effects of experiencing terror is the return or regression to the way they protected themselves as a child.

How to Cope with Terror or Extreme Fear 


1.   Immediate Effects: If you feel the initial effects, try to remember the way in which you handled the incident, and how you coped with the feelings, and then try to believe that you can count on these abilities to use in the future. By thinking of how well you coped with this event, you will become aware that you will be able to cope with any future stressful event.

2.  Short Term Effects:  Avoid being critical, and do not emotionally punish yourself.  Notice how often you experience terrifying emotions or flashbacks. You may want to learn new strategies and techniques to soothe yourself, like change who you spend time with or find ways to minimize overwhelming emotions. Try spending time with family or friends, writing in a journal or attempt learning a new physical activity.  These intense emotions should gradually diminish within a month or two.

3.  Long Term Effects:  If the emotional distress does not fade, if the intensity increases, or if the distress interferes with the daily routine, professional assistance is recommended. Be kind and accept the fact that your are going through a difficult time at the moment, and decide that you are going to find ways to manage this problem.

In conclusion, those of you who have lived through a trauma can help yourself by being with caring friends and family. Take care of yourself physically, by eating well, exercising and getting adequate sleep.  To overcome trauma it may also help to write thoughts down in a daily journal or attempt to learn a relaxation exercise just to ease the mind of the tension. Health Psychology for Everyday Lifethe book.

Live Well 

© Dr. Cheryl MacDonald

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Cheryl Ann MacDonald, Psy’D.
Health Psychology of San Diego

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