Counseling after acts of terrorism

Articles | Counseling Resources

Acts of terrorism affect not only those individuals who were directly involved in the event but also those who experienced it secondhand through its impact on loved ones or coverage in the media. To process through these acts of terror and move forward without living in fear, many people employ the services of a counselor.
This assistance can be helpful whether clients are dealing with post traumatic stress disorder from the event or simply need someone to talk to in order to process emotions.

As a counselor, you can play an important role in helping clients who have in some way experienced acts of terror. To help them process the events effectively, it is important to first understand terrorism and the emotions it can trigger.

Addressing acts of terror

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, an act of terror involves the breaking of state or federal laws in a way that intentionally causes violence or danger to human life to coerce or intimidate a population of civilians or the policy or conduct of the government. Terrorism can be either domestic or international.

Acts of terror can affect a variety of people, based on their nature, location and impact. Those individuals affected can include people who have been impacted by a previous event, those who witnessed or experienced the event directly and those exposed to the trauma through an acquaintance who was personally impacted or the coverage in the media, according to the American Psychological Association.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that typical reactions to a traumatic disaster — such as an act of terror — include:

  • Shock and numbness
  • Fear
  • Intense emotion
  • Anger and resentment
  • Guilt
  • Depression and loneliness
  • Panic
  • Isolation
  • Physical symptoms of distress
  • Delayed reaction
  • Inability to resume normal activity

Acts of terror can also result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. According to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), to be diagnosed with PTSD, a patient must have been exposed to a traumatic event – which meets specific stipulations laid out by the organization – and exhibit symptoms from four categories: avoidance, changes in reactivity and arousal, intrusion and negative changes in mood and cognition.

Because the very purpose of acts of terrorism is to instill a sense of fear or helplessness in a population, the acts often can have more of an emotional or mental impact than a bodily one, even if physical violence is involved.


Managing trauma-induced stress

When it comes to helping a client who has been affected by an act of terrorism, counselors use similar strategies as they would for anyone who is experiencing some form of trauma-induced stress.

The FBI created a list of practical tips for helping survivors of traumatic disasters based on the recommendations of individuals who had gone through a similar experience. These suggestions include:

  • Re-establish old routines. Getting back to a predictable schedule will help to restore a sense of normalcy.
  • Spend time thinking about hopeful things. Keeping your mind on positive thoughts — or even making a list — can help turn bad days around.
  • Share your experience when you feel the need. Sometimes, it can help to speak out loud to another person, especially in a professional context.
  • Take care of yourself mentally and physically. Exercise, in particular, can help to improve your mood and help you to sleep better.
  • Put off major decisions. Large changes will not necessarily lessen the pain or stress following a traumatic event. It is important to give yourself time to adjust first.

The American Psychological Association additionally recommended identifying emotions and accepting them as normal reactions, continuing to take part in activities that you enjoyed in the past, learning about the measures that the government and other agencies are taking to combat terrorism and ensure the safety of the population, and limiting the amount of time that you follow media coverage.

Working with children

Adults are not the only people who are affected by acts of terror. Children also are impacted, sometimes in ways that are more traumatic than what is experienced by their parents. While people of all ages may experience the same event, as a counselor, you will need to approach the event in different ways when helping younger clients.

Knowing how to respond appropriately is especially important if you are working as a school counselor. Many organizations have created guides for this specific purpose. For example, a paper by the Education Resources Information Center, published in 2002 shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11 in New York City and Washington, D.C., recommended a seven-step adapted family debriefing model for use in U.S. schools that involved the following:

  1. Introduction step. The purpose of the meeting is stated, and any person not related to the child or involved in the session is asked to leave.
  2. Fact gathering step. The student is asked to explain what happened or was witnessed.
  3. Thought step. The leader transitions to asking the student what he or she thought about the event.
  4. Reaction step. The student is asked for his or her reactions to the act of terror.
  5. Symptom step. The leader will ask questions about physical symptoms that were experienced, such as shaking hands or nausea.
  6. Teaching step. Time will be spent looking at what others — such as parents or teachers — have done to cope with the trauma.
  7. Re-entry step. Pressing issues will be revisited to provide closure.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommended keeping children’s routines as normal as possible to give a sense of security. Limit their access to television and the news, but be honest. Each child will be able to handle a different amount of information, but it is important to be truthful in answering questions when you are listening to their fears and concerns that have resulted from the incident. ASCA also emphasized the importance of reassuring children that while there are people in the world who do bad things, it is a good place overall.

As with adults, taking time to process and understand the act of terror, you will be able to help your young client to process the situation and start to move forward.


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