Fear of nu­clear war normal re­ac­tion: psy­chol­o­gists

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - CANADA - THE CANA­DIAN PRESS TORONTO

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s avowal to un­leash “fire and fury” on North Korea in re­sponse to any mil­i­tary strikes against the U.S. has raised the spec­tre of a nu­clear con­fronta­tion be­tween the coun­tries, ratch­et­ing up pub­lic anx­i­ety about the po­ten­tial for such a dev­as­tat­ing event.

While the es­ca­lat­ing rhetoric may be mere sabre rat­tling, psy­chol­o­gists say feel­ing fear­ful or anx­ious about the threat of a nu­clear holo­caust or any lifeal­ter­ing catas­tro­phe is per­fectly normal.

“Some­times we might ex­pe­ri­ence a sense of be­ing in con­stant dan­ger, es­pe­cially if we’re ques­tion­ing if there’s this threat to life and safety,” said Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist at the Cen­tre for Ad­dic­tion and Men­tal Health in Toronto.

“And it be­comes not only the con­cern for the safety of self, but then of course for the safely of loved ones, the de­struc­tion of ev­ery­thing we have es­tab­lished,” she said.

“The un­cer­tainty can in­duce more worry. We feel more vul­ner­a­ble and it can lead to feel­ing more help­less and pow­er­less.”

Sh­muel Lis­sek, found­ing di­rec­tor of the ANGST Lab­o­ra­tory at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, said hu­mans have been hard­wired to err on the side of cau­tion.

From an evo­lu­tion per­spec­tive, or­gan­isms that were overly cau­tious in the face of low­prob­a­bil­ity threats were more likely to sur­vive and pass on their genes - and hu­mans in­her­ited those genes, Lis­sek told the Washington Post this week.

“So when there’s a very small­prob­a­bil­ity threat that is of very high in­ten­sity, we tend to worry in­stead of not worry,” he said.

A per­son’s age may also dic­tate how they re­act emo­tion­ally to the per­ceived threat of nu­clear war, Kamkar said.

Many baby boomers grew up dur­ing the Cold War, when then U.S. pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev took the world to the brink of a nu­clear con­fla­gra­tion with the 1962 Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis, and the fear of an­ni­hi­la­tion was a sem­i­nal event in many of their lives.

In his 2001 book “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Per­fect Meal,” New York-born chef An­thony Bour­dain, 61, wrote: “I grew up think­ing the Big One could come at any mo­ment, and this coun­try — or fear of it, the way my coun­try re­acted to the threat — rad­i­cal­ized, marginal­ized and alien­ated me in ways that still af­fect me.”

While younger adults did not share that ex­pe­ri­ence with their par­ents or grand­par­ents, later mil­i­tary con­flicts with or with­out the risk of weapons of mass de­struc­tion may have in­creased their psy­cho­log­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity to a per­ceived threat of atomic war.

For in­stance, a study of Fin­nish stu­dents aged 15 to 19 around the time of the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War — in which a U.S.-led in­ter­na­tional coali­tion de­feated Iraq af­ter its in­va­sion of Kuwait — found those ado­les­cents who fre­quently wor­ried about nu­clear war had an in­creased risk of hav­ing de­vel­oped a men­tal health dis­or­der five years later.

Kamkar said teens and chil­dren process events dif­fer­ently than adults, “but we know chil­dren look to their par­ents. So if they see any fear or panic within their par­ents, they might in turn feel it as well.

“Also we know that if they hear it through the me­dia ... it can then in turn in­duce those neg­a­tive or fright­en­ing images in them.”

Richard John, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, agreed the war of words be­tween Trump and North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong Un in the me­dia can ex­ac­er­bate pub­lic anx­i­ety.

“I think peo­ple re­act to the news a lot more strongly now be­cause it’s hard to es­cape,” he said Thurs­day from Los An­ge­les. “In the ‘60s, you heard one news re­port for half an hour at night and that was about it. And now, it’s a 24-hour news cy­cle.

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