After the Terrorist Attack

New research looks different ways of coping after terrorist attacks

Posted Apr 19, 2017

Terrorism (n)   The use of the use of  indiscriminate violence to create terror or fear for the purpose of achieving  a political, religious, or ideological goal.

We've all been affected by terrorism, whether directly or indirectly.  

Memories of the 9/11 attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as recent "lone wolf" attacks in North America and Europe certainly leave us wondering about the prospect of future attacks . While we tend to feel reasonably insulated from all but the worst attacks (we hope), what about the ones who have to deal with the threat of terrorism on a daily basis?   For troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, aid workers in high-risk settings, and people simply living their lives in numerous hot spots around the world, the risk of death or serious injury is something they must live with regularly.   

A new study published in the International Journal of Stress Management examines some of the coping styles used in dealing with the daily threat of terrorism and how effective these coping styles can be. Written by Keren Cohen-Louck and Sarah Ben-David of Ariel University in Israel, the study focuses on 400 Israeli adults (54 percent female with an average age of 30).  Of these participants, 26 percent reported having been personally affected by terrorism, 25.5 percent having relatives who had been affected, and 42.7 having friends who had been affected. 

Along with collecting demographic data, the participants were also asked to complete a questionnaire measuring the amount of exposure they had to terrorism as well as specific stress symptoms they experienced and their severity.  They also completed a questionnaire measuring the different coping strategies used in dealing with the threat of terrorism.  The questionnaire was made up of items measuring  problem-focused coping, i.e., dealing with stress by addressing the problem directly and developing concrete strategies for taking control of the situation, and emotion-focused coping or managing the negative emotions that accompany stressful or upsetting situations.   First identified by psychologists Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus, problem-focused and emotion-focused coping strategies often come into play following traumatic events and most survivors will rely on both of them to some extent.    

In the questionnaire in the study, emotion-focused coping was measured using items such as:  “Since the terrorist attacks began, I’ve been worrying about my children”; “When there is a terrorist attack, I usually find out how my family is doing”; and “I believe it’s all in God’s hands and whatever needs to happen will happen.”  Problem-focused coping was measured with items such as "“When I am in a public place, I look around a lot to try to identify suspicious people or objects”; “When there is a terrorist attack, I usually find out details associated with how it was planned and carried out by the terrorists and their agents”; “I try to get to those places that seem less dangerous to me."

In studies specifically looking at how problem and emotional-focused coping are used in dealing with terror, four coping styles have been identified based on how people score coping inventories.  These include:

  • problem-targeted coping  (PTC) - relying strongly on problem-focused coping and suppressing or reducing the emotional elements involved
  • emotion-focused coping (ETC) - the opposite of PTC in which survivors focus strongly on coping with negative emotions with little attempt at problem-solving
  • integrated coping (IC) -  being high in both problem-focused and emotion-focused coping.   For many people, both types of coping are required to handle the acute stress they encounter.  
  • adaptive coping (AC) -  being low in both problem-focused and emotion-focused coping.   This is often seen in people who regard terrorism as a mundane threat that does not require exceptional coping.

Studies have shown significant differences between men and women in type of coping style that tended to be used and how that influenced their behaviour afterwards.  While women tend to use a variety of coping styles, men typically rely primarily on problem-focused coping, i.e., focusing on the event itself and looking for potential solutions. Women also tend to report  higher levels of fear than men though this may be a reflection of the different gender roles and how they relate to open displays of emotion.   

As predicted, results showed that people exposed to terrorism tend to rely on multiple coping styles shifting from one style to another while dealing with what they have experienced.   Overall, men seemed to rely on adaptive coping to minimise the impact that terrorism has on them and treat it as an everyday threat rather than a crisis that needs to be overcome.  By viewing terrorism as part of daily life,  men seem able to adapt effectively. This kind of self-adaptation also reflects the low levels of stress that tended to be reported by male participants.

For female participants however, integrated coping was the most common coping style. This suggests that, for most women, the fear of terrorism seemed higher that what was being reported by males.  Women also showed greater stress levels overall even though their risk of being a victim of terrorism was actually much lower. Interestingly enough, there didn't seem to be any real difference in fear between people who had been directly affected by terror attacks and those who weren't. On the other hand, the amount of stress that people reported did appear to be directly linked to previous experiences as well as the kind of coping styles they were using.  

So what do these results suggest for people who are worried about possible terrorist attacks in their own community?  In weighing their study results, Keren Cohen-Louck and Sarah Ben-David suggest that people dealing with terrorism often rely on different strategies depending on how they are being affected by what has happened.  Certain coping styles such as adaptive coping seem to be more effective in controlling stress than other styles.  Also, ineffective coping styles can  make people much more vulnerable to mental health problems as well as leaving them less able to move on with their lives afterwards. 


Cohen-Louck, Keren; Ben-David, Sarah. Coping with terrorism: Coping types and effectiveness.  International Journal of Stress Management, Vol 24(1), Feb 2017, 1-17.

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