the view

UB expert offers suggestions to reduce anxiety following terror events


Published November 9, 2017

headshot of Steven Dubovsky
“We have tended to defer to authority the responsibility to keep us safe, sometimes at the expense of taking responsibility for our own safety.”
Steven L. Dubovsky, professor and chair
Department of Psychiatry

Finger-pointing by authorities, the media and a feeling of helplessness are increasing the stress levels of Americans following terror-inducing events like the recent shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, a UB expert on the psychological effects of traumatic events says. But there are some practical things people can do to help ease their anxiety.

“There is a notion by the public that someone of higher authority should do something to keep everyone safe,” says Steven L. Dubovsky, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. “We have tended to defer to authority the responsibility to keep us safe, sometimes at the expense of taking responsibility for our own safety. This makes us feel helpless if someone is not immediately present to protect us.”

Dubovsky suggests that authorities and prominent figures adjust their own behavior to make people feel safer.

“It’s not helpful for the public to see finger-pointing by authorities,” he says. “Nobody is saying that we’ve got to work together to solve these problems. They need to take responsibility for the impact of their behavior.

“Authorities and politicians should realize that when they attack each other instead of unifying to address a common threat, it frightens people who look to them for common leadership,” he says.

“Leaders should be saying, ‘we’re all in this together and we should all do our part to stay safe and vigilant.’”

Dubovsky notes the media also is playing a major role in making Americans feel uneasy.

“The media attitude of putting all the gore out there, or focusing on the feeling of helplessness is making people feel less in control,” he says. “By focusing primarily on dramatic injuries, grief and feelings of helplessness, the media add to the global sense of feeling overwhelmed and helpless in response to tragic events.”

Dubovsky says there are some actions people can take to make them feel better and more in control. He cites as examples the countries of Israel and Switzerland, where some of these suggestions have worked to calm fears and empower residents.

  • Citizens can start feeling better by taking steps to protect themselves, rather than waiting passively for someone else to ensure their safety. The world has always been a dangerous place, and each of us is responsible for taking care of ourselves and others, Dubovsky says.
  • Participating in such activities as joining a neighborhood watch and taking CPR classes or basic medical courses can contribute to making society a safer place, and at the same time help individuals feel more competent and more secure.
  • People should have some basic training on how to be safe. Increasing environmental awareness — being knowledgeable about what may be suspicious activities or people, and knowing where the exits are in public places — can make people feel safer.

Dubovsky points out that Israel has been under attack consistently since its founding, with citizens having to deal with bombings, shootings, stabbings and more for decades. This lengthy history of violence has forced Israelis to be vigilant and pro-active in thwarting attacks, he says, adding that this sense of control — over uncontrollable situations — gives citizens a sense of calm and eases their anxiety.

And in Switzerland, all male adults are obliged to serve in the military and are trained in the use of firearms. This provides them with a feeling that they are prepared and competent, he says.