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Coping with Uncertain Times

Exponent article by Dr Brian Kassarr
Counseling & Psychological Services

Living with the reality of war and the threat of terrorism can bring a multitude of feelings and reactions: Fear for the safety of self and loved ones. Anger at world leaders. Disagreement with policies. Existential questions about life, death, and the meaning of world events. These feelings are normal, brought about by unpredictability and lack of control. Finding a way to cope with these reactions while still attending to our own lives may seem trivial and difficult, but still important nonetheless.

While it is valid to have fear, experts warn against fear being rooted in ill-defined or vague apprehension. Those who specialize in working with war and terrorism offer some important advice:

  • Put fears into perspective: Get facts and put them into context so they're less overwhelming.
  • Find trustworthy information and think critically: Don't become overwhelmed with data that may not be accurate or reliable. Recent technology gives us "instant" coverage, but early reports are often speculative or unclear. Put "scare messages" into perspective and determine how realistic the risks are.
  • Take a stand: Decide what these events mean to you; once you have some clarity for yourself, you'll likely feel less trapped in vague anxieties.
  • Don't "catastrophize": It's easy to fill in the gaps of missing information with "worst-case scenarios." The more you worry, the more these feelings snowball into anxiety. Experts state that you're more likely to be in a car accident than involved in a terrorist attack.
  • Let it out: Talk about your fears and feelings with others, or write about them in a journal. Getting your feelings out can be cathartic and help lead to clarity. Talk with those that help you, not fuel your anxiety.
  • Take a media holiday: Avoid the "media vigil." Only watch or read about events at specific times; give yourself permission to do normal activities or seek entertainment.
  • Maintain a normal routine: Use the coping strategies that you normally use during stressful times. Keeping up with your life is a necessity, and can also be a welcome break from worry.
  • Make a contribution: Doing something towards a cause you believe in can help you feel a sense of empowerment in the face of dyscontrol. Contributing towards a common good often helps people feel better.
Talking to kids about these issues can be tough. They often know more than what we think they do, yet gaps in that information may be filled in by a great deal of fear, just as with adults. Experts recommend giving them enough information to feel informed, but leaving out unnecessary details that may increase a child's fear. Having children keep in scared feelings can often do more damage than an age-appropriate discussion. Listen to your children and ask about their thoughts and feelings. Kids need reassurance that they and their loved ones will be safe. How you talk to children about war will vary depending on their ages:
  • Ages 2-5: Kids this age often mix up fact with fantasy. They don't have a sense of distance or geography, so they may think that what's happening is occurring right where they live or very close by. Avoid their exposure to media, since they will have a hard time separating media images from their daily lives. If your child asks about the war, don't be alarming; speak in normal tones and provide a sense of security.
  • Ages 5-11: Kids in this age group begin to have an understanding about current events and a sense of their part in a larger world. However, their emotional reactions may not be integrated with their emotional responses, and they often still view events subjectively and concretely. They may wish to learn more about world events, but television images may be disturbing and unpredictable; newspapers are probably safest for older kids.
  • For kids of all ages, art and drawings may be a good outlet for them to express their feelings about the war. Talking about it with them afterwards is a non-threatening way for them to share their feelings, and will give you a sense of how they feel and what they understand. For more information on how to talk to you kids about war, visit
View Text-only Version Text-only Updated: 12/17/08
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