How To Deal With Anxiety When Horrible Things Are Happening In The World

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Mass shootings and looming threats of terrorism are scary even when we're not personally connected to them. And while fear is a totally normal reaction, it's all too easy to slip into paranoia. So we talked to Alice Boyes, PhD, author of The Anxiety Toolkit, to find the line between useful fear and totally overblown anxiety.

The biggest issue is that these kinds of things are unpredictable, and "people don't really know what to do about it," says Dr. Boyes.
"[Politicians] are making proposals, but I don’t know if anyone really feels like these proposals actually solve the problem." So that leaves us feeling out of control and anxious.

But the thing to remember is that those feelings aren't necessarily a bad thing: "You have such a huge evolved fear and disgust reaction...because we’re wired up for these things to be so abhorrent to us," says Dr. Boyes. In other words, it's only natural.

That's one reason why it's so hard for us to keep ourselves from getting swallowed up by anxieties, even if we know how unlikely violent events are to affect us personally. "[That reaction is] something that we’re designed not to be able to disconnect from," Dr. Boyes adds. "It wouldn’t be a very good system if we were able to just blow off a legitimate threat that’s out there."

However, if you find yourself getting distracted by anxiety about violence and terrorism, those feelings may not be all that helpful in today's world. Dr. Boyes suggests asking yourself if your anxieties are leading you to actually do things that logically reduce your risk. For instance, if your fear of an attack happening when you're walking home by yourself at night causes you to walk in well-lit areas, that's a useful fear. But if it's just causing you to never leave your apartment, that's not so great.

Still, it's not exactly easy to get away from the constant discussions on TV, comment threads on Facebook, and security reminders at the airport. But Dr. Boyes says the goal isn't to completely tune those things out. "If you draw too much of an extreme line, where you try to shut yourself off, that's what people with a phobia do," says Dr. Boyes. "They try to avoid anything that might trigger their anxiety."

Instead, we should engage with these issues in a constructive way — and know when we're no longer getting anything out of our fears. For that, Dr. Boyes says your group of friends (IRL or otherwise) can be useful sounding boards. "You can have people around you who are asking the same types of questions that you're asking and genuinely trying to grapple with the issues," she says. Having those conversations can make it easier to engage with intimidating ideas.

Maybe it's not the most obvious Saturday brunch discussion topic, but there's not much that a mimosa and an honest conversation can't help you feel better about.
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