Terrorism & War Articles, Research & Resources

Catrina Cowart
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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About War and Terrorism

War and terrorism are two kinds of armed conflict aimed at defeating or eliminating an opponent. Between two nations or states, the conflict is a war. The war may be large or small, and may, in some cases, be without acts of violence leading to injury or death (a bloodless war). (1) A war that breaks out between two factions within the same country is called a civil war.

Terrorism is the use of violence to make people afraid while aiming for changes in a location's political, social, cultural, or economic type. (2)

Between 2010 and 2020, approximately 22,847 people died as a result of terrorism. (3) The annual death toll from war violence averaged under 100,000 people per year during that same timeframe. (4) 

Both war and terrorism may result in mental health challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and other conditions, among those who witness or experience the conflicts. (5) (6)

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What Is War?

War is a hostile conflict between groups (usually nations or states) that lasts a significant time. (7) However, that's just one possible definition. The true definition of war depends on who's defining it.

For example, sociologists say that only conflicts initiated or conducted in socially recognized forms count as wars, while the military may only call a conflict a war if both groups are sufficiently balanced in power. (8)

During a war, those involved in the war or who witness acts of war (military members or civilians) may experience traumatic events that lead to an increased risk of mental health concerns. (6)

What Is Terrorism?

Terrorism has three defining features. (2) They are:

  1. Use of violence
  2. A desire for political, social, cultural, or economic change
  3. The goal of causing fear among people

Terrorist attacks can happen within a country as well as between nations. People in the United States may think immediately of 9/11, a major terrorist attack, but that's just one example. Different forms of terrorism include: (2)

  • Vigilante terrorism is private citizens harming other private citizens. Violence by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan falls into this category (also known as hate crimes). (2)
  • Insurgent terrorism involves private citizens rising against businesses, institutions, or governments. The January 6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol is an example. (9)
  • State terrorism happens when the government uses violence against its own citizens. Genocide is an example of state terrorism. (2)
  • Transnational terrorism happens when one nation's citizens target another nation's citizens. The incidents of September 11, 2001, are examples of transnational terrorism. (2)

Terrorism causes uncertainty, fear, and instability. Psychological suffering is sometimes more common than physical injuries. (10) Witnessing a terrorist attack or event may lead to feelings of helplessness or horror, which can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, supstance use disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and other mental health challenges.

How to Cope With Terrorism and War

When dealing with war, terrorist threat, or attack, the impact on a person's psyche can be extreme. Many people experience anxiety, anger, grief, and sadness. While some people continue with their lives despite the conditions around them or what they've been through, others may have debilitating psychological reactions. (11)

Common psychological reactions to war and terrorism include:

  • Crying without an apparent reason
  • Headaches
  • Stomach issues
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Disorientation
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Depression
  • Sadness
  • Feeling numb or emotionless
  • Night terrors

These feelings may be severe enough to disrupt a person's life. People who experience intense feelings that impact and impair their normal daily lives may need mental health care from a professional. Some signs to seek help and assistance include:

  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Being easily startled
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Having night terrors
  • Struggling with repetitive thoughts
  • Having a sense of impending doom

Mental health assistance, such as talk therapy, behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and medications, may help with these feelings. (1)

Focus on the Facts

It's easy to get caught up in the news and what people say is going on during a war or terrorist attack. Focusing on the facts helps people remain calmer. Especially for children, it's necessary to tell the truth, but avoid embellishing or speculating. (12)

For example, of the 22,847 deaths mentioned in this article, approximately 97% occurred in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Those in other countries are less likely to experience terrorism. (3)

Maintain a Normal Routine

Those who are dealing with terrorism and war can try to maintain a normal routine when possible to minimize the impact of what's going on around them. Going to work, making dinner at a specific time, and going about business as usual can help reduce fear and anxiety. (12)

Limit Exposure

When possible, limit exposure to images of war or terrorism after the initial occurrence. Avoiding social media and television news programs may help. (11) Media coverage of terrorism, in particular, is sometimes disproportionate to how often it's actually happening or to the true number of deaths (3).

Talk About It

Another helpful tip is to talk about it. Talking with others may help people realize they're not going through the situation alone. If someone you care about is struggling, you can help by listening and validating their fears and concerns or encouraging them to get professional help.

Why does talking about it help? During a stressful event, the amygdala, the area of the brain that handles the fight-or-flight response, kicks into action. (13) Researchers at UCLA found that putting feelings into words (affect labeling) may help diminish the amygdala's emotional response, resulting in less stress over something troubling. (14) Studies also found a positive impact on the immune systems and health of people who wrote or spoke about traumatic experiences in talk therapy. (15)