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Coping with Terror

What is terror?

People feel terrorized by unexpected, unwanted, or scary events. Events that seem to be sudden, random or uncontrollable add to the feeling of terror. Terror takes away our sense of safety and may also make us feel helpless, hopeless, and angry. After a scary or traumatic event, a person may no longer be able to go about their usual life in the same way as they could before. This feeling of overwhelming fear can have both short-term and long-term consequences.

Terror may occur due to traumatic accidents, or could be done by certain groups or individuals in order to achieve a goal. Following are examples of different types of terrorism:
  • Governments or groups may create terror in order to control people. Bombings, invasions, and releasing biological or chemical weapons all create terror. These groups try to scare people so that they will do whatever the controlling group wants them to do.
  • Natural events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, wildfires, and earthquakes may also create terror. They do this because they seem to happen randomly. Natural events can make us feel unsafe and helpless.
  • Accidents such as car, train, or plane crashes may create terror. These events may not only terrorize the victims. They may also terrorize the caregivers who arrive on the scene to help or family members and friends. This happens because family and friends may imagine over and over the horror their loved ones went through.
  • A single person can also create terror. An example is a person who acts in unexpected ways that scare the people around him. A man who is sometimes kind and sometimes cruel may terrorize his wife and children. This effect is worse when his wife and children cannot predict when he will be kind or cruel.

What is known about terror?

After experiencing a traumatic event or loss, most people go through a series of emotions. Disbelief and denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, depression and acceptance are the emotions felt by most people. These phases or stages can take a short or very long time. Sometimes people can get caught up in one stage and are unable to move forward toward acceptance and understanding. Traumatic events often change our outlook on life. Some people are unable to continue in their jobs. Keeping relationships with friends or maintaining their marriages may also be difficult. Understanding how terror affects us allows caregivers to offer different kinds of treatments for people who have experienced terror.

How will I know if I am being terrorized?

You may not know right away that you were terrorized. It may be days, weeks, months, or even years before you understand that you were a victim of terror. In times of terror, we are usually so busy dealing with the emergency, we do not realize how we will be affected later. One way to know if you were terrorized is by noticing changes you have made in your daily life:

  • You may be avoiding the place where the event happened.
  • You may be avoiding a person because of how memories of the event are attached to the person.
  • You may be avoiding the subject in your conversations with others.
  • You may be drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs.
  • If you are being terrorized by a person in your life, you may feel fear before you see the person. You may feel dread at the thought of seeing him. If you do not see the person in your daily life, you may avoid him. You may not know why you feel this way.

What are the signs and symptoms of adults being terrorized?

Signs and symptoms of terror may be emotional, psychological (felt in your mind) and physical (felt in your body). The following are signs and symptoms of terror:

  • Early signs and symptoms:
    • Feelings of shock, fear, grief, anger, guilt, shame, helplessness, and hopelessness may happen right away. You may find it difficult to share your feelings, even with someone you love. You may not feel interest or pleasure in your usual daily activities.
    • You may feel confused, or disoriented (dis-OR-e-en-ted). Disoriented means feeling lost. You may not know where you are, who you are, or what you were just doing. You may also have trouble making decisions. You may worry more than usual. Your attention span may be short, or you may have difficulty concentrating (focusing on one thing).
    • You may notice you are reacting differently from your usual self, or you may over-react to events. Following are some signs you can use to judge whether you are reacting physically to a terrorizing event:
      • You may be more tired than usual, or feel overly alert.
      • You may have trouble sleeping, or sleep too much.
      • You may hurt, or you may feel numb.
      • You may jump when approached unexpectantly from behind, or you may not react at all.
      • You may have a fast heartbeat, or your heartbeat may be slow.
      • You may feel sick to your stomach and eat little, or you may eat more than usual.
      • There may be an unexplained change in your sex drive (increase or decrease).
    • Later signs and symptoms: Your relations with your friends, family, and co-workers may change. You may find yourself becoming angry too quickly. You may not trust as easily as you did before. You may want to be alone and not have to deal with other people. You may feel irritable, or feel unwanted, rejected, or abandoned.
    • Severe signs and symptoms:
      • Dissociation (dis-so-see-A-shun): This means feeling completely unreal or outside yourself. You may have "blank" periods of time you cannot remember.
      • Intrusive (in-TRU-siv) re-experiencing: This means having terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks that may happen at any time.
      • Extreme emotional numbing: This means being unable to feel joy, happiness, sadness, or other emotions at times you would have before the event.
      • Hyperarousal (hi-per-uh-ROW-sul): This means having panic attacks, being very angry or easily angered, or being very nervous.
      • Severe depression: This is a complete loss of hope, self-worth, motivation (desire to do things), or purpose in life.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic event, and is a combination of many of the feelings listed above. It is seen in people after going through a terrible event, or a series of terrifying events. War, torture, rape, domestic abuse, natural or human-made disasters are some of the events that may lead to PTSD.

What are the signs and symptoms of children being terrorized?

Children may have trouble telling you how they feel. This is often because they have no name for their feelings. You can help your child by describing feelings to him and giving him a name to fit the feeling. An example is feeling helpless. When we feel helpless, we feel that nothing we do, think, or say will help.

  • Children may regress (go back to) to earlier behavior. For example, young children who are potty-trained may begin to wet the bed.
  • Children may act in ways that are unusual for them. For example, if a child is usually talkative, he may become quiet and keep to himself.
  • Children need to know that they are safe and will not be left alone. Talk to your child about the event. Also ask questions about his ideas of what happened. Ask him why he thinks it happened.
  • Children need to have traumatic events put into a framework for them. Children often will express their emotions during games or when drawing pictures. Sometimes it helps children to re-play a traumatic event using toys to better understand it.
  • For events like tornados or car accidents that may be covered on television, limit television-watching. Watch television news with your older children, and talk to them about what they are seeing. The news media tends to show an event over and over. Children do not always understand it is the same event being shown many times. Instead, they may think that something bad is happening in many places.

How can I keep from feeling terrorized, even after a terrible event has passed?

There is no way to prevent terror from happening. Terror is the natural result of random, unexpected, extremely traumatic events. The feelings that you have after being terrorized may last a long time. Once you realize that an event or a person has terrorized you, you may want to look for ways to get help or to help yourself.

  • Talking about the event to a family member or friend may help. This is true especially if you have never talked to anyone about it. Sometimes meeting with other people who have had similar experiences leads to the feeling that you are not alone, or that other people understand you. Ask your caregiver for the names and numbers of support groups in your town.
  • You may have a memory that keeps returning. You may feel this memory is too horrible, shameful, or disgusting to talk about. That memory is the one that most needs to be told to someone you trust.
  • If a person close to you is terrorizing you, begin to look for ways to safely get out of the relationship. There are many organizations that are able to help you. For help dealing with terror after it has occurred, you may contact the following organizations:
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline
    Phone: 1- 800 - 799-7233
    Web Address:
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
    1120 Lincoln Street, Suite 1603
    Denver , CO 80203
    Phone: 1- 303 - 839-1852
    Phone: 1- 800 - 799-7233
    Web Address:

What can I do to help myself feel better?

  • Understand that your symptoms may be normal. It is normal to be affected by a terrorizing event, especially right after it happens.
  • Talk with other people about the experience and your feelings as much as possible. This helps you to realize that the event really did happen. Talking with others may help you begin to cope with your feelings about the event.
  • Return to your normal daily activities as soon as you can. These activities will help you feel more in control.
  • Add an activity to your daily routine that you may have thought was a luxury. Taking time out for yourself can help you regain an understanding of where you fit in the world.
  • Take care of day-to-day problems such as personal paperwork, paying bills, and your kids' school problems, as they come up. If you put off solving problems, there is a danger that they will begin collecting. If too many collect, you may feel that you cannot cope with them at all.
  • Find a way to use extra energy such as sports or other physical activity. Just being outside may help you feel better. Always talk to your caregiver before starting a new exercise program.
  • Some people react to loss of control by trying to control everything. Trying to control events and people can lead to more frustration. Let some of the people and events in your life take care of themselves.
  • Do not stay away from people, situations, or places that remind you of the event. The longer you stay away, the harder it will be to go back to them.

When should I seek help from a mental health professional?

Seek help from a mental health professional if you feel you need to. Many symptoms are normal right after the event. About half of the people exposed to a terrorizing event have no lasting effects after about 3 months.

  • Mental health professionals may help you deal with your thoughts, feelings, and changes in behavior after you are terrorized. For many people, these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affect them more than physical changes that happened. For example, healthcare and rescue workers may not have been physically harmed by the event. Yet, a mental or emotional part of the event may haunt them for years or even a lifetime without help. No one knows why some events affect us more strongly than others.
  • Consider seeking help from a mental health professional if:
    • Your relationship with your family and friends breaks down.
    • Your job has been affected.
    • You have started using, or are increasing your use of alcohol or prescribed or illegal drugs.
For more information on terror and the aftermath of terror contact the following organizations:
  • National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
    Phone: 1- 802 - 2966300
    Web Address:
  • Centers for Disease Control
    1600 Clifton Rd.
    Atlanta, GA , 30333
    Phone: 1- 800 - 232-4636
    Web Address:
  • PTSD Alliance
    PTSD Alliance Resource Center
    Phone: 1- 877 - 507-7873
    Web Address:

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.