A few days ago our country was hit by what presumably was a terrorist attack, killing four people, injuring 15, but scaring a whole nation. At least initially.
The aim of terrorism is to induce fear in order to make a political statement or achieve a political goal. Fear is essential for terrorism to work; even if the actual attack only affects a smaller group of people it will trigger fear like ripples on the water.
Fear is one of our basic affects; a direct, physical and congenital sensation that functions as an alarm to warn us about real and potential danger. Fear has evolutionary been truly important for our survival, probably more so than positive affects such as joy. Fear is what has protected us from getting eaten by lions, and it is what protects us from getting run over by trucks that suddenly drive out in front of us. Our fear system is extremely quick and potent, affecting our whole being in an instant.
We know that fear is a prominent emotion in many anxiety disorders, from specific phobias to panic attacks. In CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy – we learn the difference between functional fear (being scared of things that are actually dangerous) and dysfunctional fear (being scared of things that our minds believe to be dangerous, but actually aren’t). The thing with our minds is that they fairly easily start to make up scary things and scenarios. Fear has a tendency to spread, especially if we avoid the things we are afraid of. To help people learn that what they are afraid of won’t harm them, CBT uses exposure. Slowly moving closer, rather than avoiding, that which scare them. Slowly learning that things are okay, even if they seemed scary at first.
It’s sometimes said that the opposite of fear is love, or courage. While this is true to some extent, I would say that the opposite of fear, more than anything, is trust. Trusting that we will be safe even if we encounter what potentially could scare us.
The aim of terrorism is to spread fear in order to limit our experienced freedom, to start distrusting our society, its inhabitants and institutions. To challenge this fear and to counter we need trust. Trusting each other and trusting our society.
More than anything, this is what happened hours after the attack on Friday; people all over Stockholm generously – and with trust – opened their homes to others, inviting them for coffee and company while waiting to calm down or find a way to get back home. Inviting what with fear could be perceived as strangers, but that with trust became fellow humans, part of the city’s extended family. Like ripples on the water that trusting openness spread through the city, inspiring people to move closer together instead of isolating themselves from one another. That is how you counter fear: with love, courage and trust.