Oliver James: Dread nought

A month after the failed bombings of 21 July, not everyone is equally intimidated by the threat of being blown up. Politicians encouraged us to feel smug about our resilient Blitz Spirit and to keep using public transport to prove our defiance of the evil forces of Satan (meaning Bin Laden, not Bush). While some small-minded commentators sneered that it was easy enough for them to write such speeches from the safety of their limousines, there is actually some scientific evidence that glass-half-full thinking is the best way to keep the fears at bay.

A sample of New Yorkers were studied from seven months after 9/11 until 18 months afterwards. All had been in close proximity to the World Trade Center at the time and had witnessed deaths or injuries. Nonetheless, one third of them had been little shaken by the atrocity, suffering no increase in depression or anxiety, not worrying that something else awful might happen.

A quarter did have a small initial increase in fear, but had recovered by 18 months; 13 per cent suffered a delayed reaction. Initially fine, they developed increasing numbers of symptoms, like repetitive fantasies of destruction. Finally, 29 per cent suffered symptoms throughout.

Overall, the more injuries and deaths witnessed, the greater the distress. However, a crucial factor was the extent to which people protected themselves from uncomfortable feelings by what psychologists call 'self-enhancement'.

Self-enhancers live in a rose-tinted bubble of positive illusions. They tend to blame others for mistakes and to take credit where it's not due. They assume nasty things are less likely to happen to them than is actually the case and that good things will happen more than is likely.

In the study, the New Yorkers who fell into the resilient category were more likely than those in the others to be self-enhancers. However, before you rush to join them in LaLa Land, there was a downside. Self-enhancers tend to be unpopular narcissists.

In the study, when their friends and relatives were interviewed 18 months after 9/11, they said the self-enhancers were not being honest and their relationships were deteriorating. The problem is that self-enhancers are liable to be immune to how others see them.

My practical tips for anyone who is feeling nervy about using public transport are threefold. First, remind yourself that even if there is another atrocity, it's incredibly unlikely it will affect you or anyone you know.

Second, do deep breathing: start with an in-breath that takes 30 seconds, counting to 30, using your stomach to pull the air in rather than your chest, do the same for out-breaths, repeat as necessary.

Third, picturing it in black and white chrome, imagine a situation where you feel completely safe and relaxed - lying by a pool or serving aces on a tennis court. Now picture it again, but this time introduce the colour until you have boosted it to the most vivid brilliance you can imagine. Repeat as necessary.

Rather than becoming a self-enhancing bore, if you do these things, you will not feel the fear.


Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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