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Winning the Emotional War on Terror

The point of barbaric, surprise attacks on civilians is not just to kill.

In the aftermath of the shock and horror of the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the US declared a “war on terror” and launched a military offensive and increased security at home. In response to the carnage in Paris, French President Francois Hollande vowed a “ruthless response” and followed with warplanes pounding ISIS targets in Syria.

But the point of barbaric, surprise attacks on innocent civilians is not just to kill people, it is to terrify the living. The most deadly weapons actually impact the mind, as terror spreads easily from one brain to the next; creating a collective resonance of fear that corrupts good judgment, erodes health and steals our sense of security.

As of now, we are losing the emotional war to terror. Your chance of being killed by a terrorist is 1 in 20 million, yet a PEW Research Center Report showed that the top priority of Americans remains the war on terror. In times of great stress, the thinking, neocortical brain, our “smartest self,” relinquishes its authority to the extremes of the primitive, reptilian brain. When our brain perceives a threat to our survival, be it real or imagined, we simply fight, flight, or freeze. Clearly, many Americans remain afraid of the threat of terror; despite the fact that violence in the world is at an historical low, and the odds of being affected by terrorism are extremely low.

Current solutions, including psychotherapy, medications, and self-help strategies, are no longer enough. The American Psychological Association recommendations of talking about feelings, maintaining usual routines, thinking positive thoughts and limiting exposure to media coverage can help us cope to a degree, but terror is an internal problem that needs an internal solution.

What if we wiped the slate clean, and applied a neuroscience perspective to the war on terror? That question is what informed and inspired Emotional Brain Training (EBT), a neuroscience-based stress management program I developed with my colleagues over the last three decades.

The stimulus that your brain received by the image of people scattering out of the Bataclan theatre and lying dead on the pavement is encoded in the most primitive area of your emotional brain, the brain tucked underneath your thinking mind. It is a string of neurons that linked together, and were over-remembered by the brain – locked in and protected from erasure because the brain believes, since you did not die in the attack, that this memory is valuable to your survival.

Once encoded, even normal daily events, emotions, thoughts, sensations and behaviors can reactivate that memory, and we can feel terror for no conscious reason. With each activation, that circuit becomes stronger and more easily reactivated in response to a new stimulus.

What’s more, terror circuits trigger similar past circuits, which amplifies the stress. This is a possible explanation for why 80% of people exposed to trauma do not develop PTSD. Often those with a secure attachment style and few adverse childhood events have lower risk. A low number of stressful events occurring after the trauma protect against PTSD, too. The cumulative stress load on the brain (“set point”) can make the brain stuck in stress, so the treatment of PTSD with medications and comprehensive services are needed, and even then recovery is slow and challenging!

When these circuits are activated, they do not just cause emotional extremes (numbness, depression, hostility, panic or mania) but equally extreme expectations and behaviors. The strong emotional drive of the circuit is activated so rapidly that impulse control vanishes, and behaviors can be maladaptive, compulsive or addictive.

What’s more, once these circuits are activated, they do not flicker off and on and settle down of their own accord. They are positive feedback loops that have no shut-off valves. The domino effect of one circuit triggering another can cause a state of terror to be lengthy or even chronic.

Fortunately, through the work of the New York University Emotional Brain Institute laboratories, important breakthroughs have occurred in our understanding of the neuroplasticity of the brain. We have learned that often these fear memories can be reconsolidated by purposefully feeding the brain emotional experiences in a “three stage” emotional pattern that enhances the amazing plasticity of fear memories.

First, the NYU research showed that a “spark” of stress unlocked the old circuit, opening it up for potential reconsolidation. Second, EBT uses a progression of feelings that transform negative emotions into positive emotional experiences, making it safe to experience that productive stress. Third, Michael Merzenich, PhD, the “father of neuroplasticity” has observed that a feel-good dopamine surge can lock in the new circuit, thereby enhancing plasticity.

In EBT, that three-stage emotional pattern can be accomplished by using one of the five emotional tools for effective stress management. It’s the tool that relieves high levels of stress and spirals us up to a state of intense natural pleasure. It’s the Cycle Tool, and used repeatedly with peer-to-peer support can begin to rewire these circuits.

The stress epidemic is global, and with population growth, the number of people who are vulnerable to engaging in extreme acts will be likely to grow. Although marshalling external safeguards to minimize the frequency and scope of barbarous acts is important, it’s the wiring in the emotional brain that is both the problem and the solution.

The more that people around the globe have stress – metabolic, physical and emotional – the more extremes there will be. Caring for the well-being of others can boomerang back to improve the safety of our own family and community.

A personal solution to the war on terror is from within. It is taking stress seriously, and processing our own emotions not just when life is easy, but learning tools so that we can go into the fire of strong negative emotions and come out the other side spiraling up to a state of connection and well-being. That changes our emotional brain out of terror and into a state of peace and power from within. That’s something each of us can do.

Laurel Mellin is a New York Times Bestselling Author. Her new book, Spiral Up! Discover the Power of Simple Tools to Relieve Stress and Feel Good Now is available at