Deflating the Fear ; War, Terrorism, and the TV News Are Fanning Americans' Anxieties, but Practical Steps Can Help People Find a Stronger Sense of Security

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The advent of war concentrates the thoughts of Americans - and the world - on events that almost everyone expects will change the course of history in unpredictable ways.

Apprehensions about this war have been building worldwide in recent weeks, and in the US, they have merged with the persistent anxieties about terrorist threats and a declining economy.

Earlier this month, when Americans were asked by Gallup what they considered "the most important problem facing the country," two concerns tied for No. 1: The "fear of war/feelings of fear in this country," and the state of the economy. Terrorism was third.

When the congregation at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco held a forum last week to discuss the prospect of war, pastor Laird Stuart found that "the level of apprehension was high that we are about to do something that has enormous implications, and that in itself is unnerving."

America has confronted periods of fear before, including the threat of nuclear annihilation during the cold war from missiles very close to US shores. What makes today's situation so difficult, say people who regularly counsel Americans, is the dramatic shock of US vulnerability at a time of unprecedented prosperity, combined with a cultural environment that intensifies rather than ameliorates people's anxieties.

It need not be so, they say. Terrorism happens mostly in the imagination, and not only do Americans have the resources to deal with their anxieties, but many of the fears troubling people today are unwarranted.

"Having dedicated my life to helping people put fear in its natural place, it's hard to watch the country be so undone by unnecessary anxiety," writes Gavin de Becker, a national expert on predicting and managing violence, in "Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism."

Pastoral counselors, therapists, and terror-risk experts agree that Americans can take spiritual and other practical steps to free themselves from such fears, and use the anxieties born of ignorance to inform themselves more fully about the challenges facing the US.

Fear is helpful only when it signals a presence of immediate danger. When it's based on memory or imagination, it is unwarranted, says Mr. de Becker.

What's needed first is to accept the new situation in this country - there are no security guarantees - but recognize that this has always been part of the human condition.

"We're just waking up to what the rest of the world has been living with for a long time," says therapist Robert Gerzon. "We've had tremendous success through our technology and government programs in building up an unprecedented sense of security, and it has created a feeling that life should come with a guarantee, and it doesn't. What we need to do is deepen our spiritual life."

At the same time, experts like de Becker - whose firm has designed threat-assessment systems for the US Supreme Court, and congressional and local police forces - help people sort out the real nature of threats versus the "terrorism by TV" that he says exaggerates and misinforms. He details in his book why Americans should no longer fear air hijackings and why any biochemical attack would likely be less dangerous or pervasive than they have been led to assume.

High on everyone's list of practical steps to reduce fear is this advice: Go on a media diet! Reduce consumption of TV news to one program a day, and read newspapers instead. Avoid the gossip and speculation of developing stories until there is some genuine perspective on what's happened.

"The broadcast media wants to get people's attention, and the way to do that psychologically is to make people anxious," says Mr. Gerzon, author of "Finding Serenity in an Age of Anxiety." "Stay informed but in a way that doesn't fill your mind with images of catastrophe on a daily basis. …