Terror is part of the body’s basic survival mechanisms. It says, “I sense something that threatens my life, and I want to live!” As unpleasant as it feels, terror is not an enemy in itself. It is a blaring alarm.
There are so many reasons to feel terror these days. World-wide pandemic. Wildfires. Police murdering Black people with no consequences. The death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with the accompanying threat to civil liberties.
Each threat affects the nervous system differently. The pandemic virus is invisible and we receive conflicting information about the right actions to take. In contrast, the burning smell and eerie reddish light from wildfires awaken a primal need to flee. Militarized police impose an ever-present dread of random violence on Black lives. Crumbling political institutions bring a slow-motion threat of a constricted future.
As you read this article about terror, and any time there is no immediate emergency, invite yourself to slow down. Pause to check in with your body, and take breaks as needed.
When you feel terror (extreme fear) or panic (extreme anxiety):
- Soothe past terror
- Plan for the future
When your system is flooded with terror, bring your attention to your breath. Simply notice that you are still breathing. Invite your inbreath to bring in a little more air. Invite your outbreath to be a little longer than your inbreath. Note: forcing your breathing to change can add more distress. Be gentle.
Name your sensations to yourself. Rapid heartbeat, tingling face, staring eyes, clenched shoulders, breathlessness, agitation. The urge to flee, or back into a defensible corner, or lash out. The urge to find and cling to someone you love.
Look around at your current situation. Name what you observe. Is there immediate physical danger, like visible flames? Is there a current emergency, like evacuation orders?
Create a calm container around the terror by saying, “I sense something in me that is terrified.” Feel your present-time adult body, your size and strength and capabilities.
When there is a present-time emergency, channel terror into action. As much as terror might scream at you to do everything at once, it works better to give attention to one task at a time.
If your system goes into freeze, keep noticing your body and your surroundings until movement feels possible again. Bring in as much kind acceptance as you can, including for the part that is yelling about being frozen. In every moment, your system is doing its very best to keep you alive.
Terrified bodies often want other bodies nearby for soothing and support. When my cat was terrified by a vet visit, she pressed herself against my belly for comfort and protection. Reach out to trusted people or pets for physical contact if they are available to you. Strangers can quickly become calming support in an emergency. Next best is phone, video, or text/email with someone you trust.
If you cannot reach for a personal connection, search online for stories from people who have been in similar situations. No matter how alone you feel, you are not the first or only person to go through your situation.
Soothe past terror
After dealing with any immediate threats, you can bring kind attention to soothing past terror. If your emotions are out of scale with current events, it might be an emotional flashback or a preverbal flashback.
Your adult self can offer comfort and reassurance to the terrified inner child. Anchor yourself in present sensations and the certainty that whatever the past terrifying situation was, it did end. Put a gentle hand over your belly or heart if that feels comforting.
Be kind to your terrified body. Seek out comfort, warmth, and containment. Wrap up in a blanket, perhaps a weighted blanket. Wear soft, comfortable clothes. Hold a cup of tea. Cuddle a stuffed animal or pillow. Eat something calming. Listen to soothing familiar music.
Plan for the future
Are you terrified about the future? Pull in the perimeter of your attention to a manageable time horizon, perhaps five minutes, or a few days. Anchor yourself in the immediate present. You might be right that the future will be terrible, and it is not happening yet.
Acknowledge terror’s signal, “This will be bad! Do something!” Seek out information from multiple sources and build an internal sense of what might happen. Plan as best you can for bad outcomes, and take action toward the future you want to see.
Let it move
Terror is a natural part of being alive. Let it breathe, move, cry, scream. Afterwards, your system will settle toward calm. Continue to limit your perimeter of attention to the immediate present when you start to feel overwhelmed. You might notice that you have been living with an ongoing background of terror for a while.
You might find a sense of containment and reassurance in physical movement, a walk or run or bike ride. If you cannot fix the large problems, fix small ones and create order in your living space. Get out your mending pile. Organize your junk drawer. Pull some weeds in the garden.
Conditions that are new and terrifying for some of us are familiar for others. Hazardous air quality from wildfire smoke is a shock for many of us on the west coast of the US, but old news for people living downwind from industrial pollutants. As we adapt to unfamiliar hazards, we can also use our new understanding to push for improved conditions for everyone suffering those hazards. Mend what you can reach.
Trust your resilience
Terror moves us to act in the present, shows us where kind attention is needed to heal our past, and directs us to prepare for the future. Listen to its messages, and trust that future-you will be able to handle future conditions, just as you are now handling the demands of the present. Notice the resources and resilience you have already gathered to help you adapt to difficult situations and events.
- “The Thinnest Slice of Now” by Robyn Posin recommends narrowing your focus in overwhelming times.
- An Anarchist Quaker’s Prayer to Soothe Anxiety by Ayu Sutriasa’s therapist encourages us to put down the world’s anguish for a moment.
- An encouraging 9 minute animated video of what we are aiming for. A Message From the Future II: The Years of Repair, art by Molly Crabapple, political storytelling by Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, and Opal Tometi.