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Commentary: World events can rattle our interior lives

I've said it before, and it's time to say it again: Terrorism works.

It frightens and repulses us, just as it's meant to do. It invokes anger and infuriates us, especially in its most barbaric and abominable forms, such as beheadings. These acts cut through the veneer of civilized human behavior, reminding us how cheaply human life may be valued. As a reaction to these acts, hatred, prejudice and polarization begin festering just beneath the surface, waiting for the right stimulus to break through.

Dramatic and gruesome acts starkly remind us of the reality of clashing political, economic and religious ideologies as they are played out on the world stage. And they provoke us to strike back in force, showing the designated enemy that we — as individuals and as a country — won't be defeated or treated in this grotesque, demeaning manner. Sadly, retaliation only provokes further offensive engagement, as round after round are played out with so much destruction, often in unforeseen ways.

The prospect of years of more bombs, missiles, airstrikes, unspeakable injuries, vicious deaths and money spent deflates the spirit — especially after a decade of Middle East hotspot wars and what appeared to be the hope of finally bringing all of the troops home.

Is it just coincidental that on the individual and family levels, we see more anxiety, deception, rage explosions, self-destructive abuse, desperation, marital affairs and acting-out craziness of all kinds? A lot of people feel at times that they are coming unraveled at the psychological seams. I can see that they do their best to numb themselves from the emotional pain.

A loss of the sense of personal security in our daily life is one price we pay, even in a beautiful and prosperous area, where so many have more than their basic needs satisfied and so much to be grateful for.

I've had more than one patient come in over the past few weeks apologizing for what they think are relatively small personal concerns when compared to the larger world drama. I remind them that their own life and inner world still matter and that they have a right to take them seriously. They nod in agreement, but I know they still wonder if they shouldn't complain about anything compared to all the suffering they see around them.

These terrorist acts serve to put my patients' own issues into a larger context, in which life is unpredictable and can suddenly end, or at least be shaken to its core without rhyme or reason. They don't always say it, but I can see they are fearful of what may befall them.

Some find that rationing their dose of the daily news from all sources makes it easier for them to cope. Others have given up listening to the news altogether and prefer to get lost in football, work, sex, shopping, alcohol and reality shows.

Each of us senses how much painful reality we can tolerate without getting too anxious or depressed. And each of us must monitor not feeling more emotional sensitivity than just that amount that keeps us in touch with suffering but doesn't push us over the edge into negative preoccupation.

Sometimes we just need to say what so many are thinking but are afraid or unable to speak.

STEVEN HENDLIN is clinical psychologist in Newport Beach.

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