Mental and Physical Health in Times of Terror: How to run without running away.

This morning I felt like running. How could I not? It was a beautiful day and I had just enough time for a good run before my 9:00 AM meeting.  So I packed up my CamelBak with the usual 2 liters of water but included a few add-ons: a cell phone in case of emergency and a knife in case of an attack. With my Intifada running kit ready, I was off and out the door.

Slowly the holiday rust in my legs began to fade and despite three weeks of delicious food, I felt light and easy. But after a few blocks, I became nervous when I realized that my legs were automatically directing me to my usual route through an Arab neighborhood. Given the recent attacks, this normally friendly area may not be safe. My pace slowed as I asked myself if a less risky alternative was a wise choice over my usual path.

This dilemma was an expression of a much deeper set of questions: How do we let terror affect and alter our lives? How do we stay healthy during periods of great stress? How do we show strength and resilience without making foolhardy decisions?

I was reminded of two opposite behavioral therapy techniques for overcoming phobias I learned when I studied psychology. The first, a traumatic yet effective technique, involves exposing the individual to his/her phobia in its absolute worst form. This technique, called “flooding,” is similar to introducing a person with a fear of dogs to a rabid dog, or a child with a fear of reptiles to an alligator. After flooding the person with his/her worst nightmares, the theory posits that lesser threats, like a neighbor’s puppy, will seem like, well… a puppy.

The second technique is more subtle and is appropriately called “graduated exposure” or “systematic desensitization.” This involves gradually exposing the person to his/her phobia in its least threatening form. When the patient achieves relaxation in the presence of this stimulus, the therapist then brings out the next worst thing. This is a slower but far less traumatic approach to overcoming one’s fears.

Back to my run. I elected to take a safer route and made my way to a large park I had never visited. It was beautiful and in the safer environment, I was worry free. Relaxed and re-energized, I came home and got ready for my meeting.

By adapting my plans ever so slightly, I was able to maintain a normal life in what has become an abnormal world. This, in and of itself, is a great form of resilience and something that Israelis have been doing since long before the state was founded. Adapting our lives in the face of terror is much more difficult than addressing a phobia. We cannot overcome our fear of terrorism by “graduated exposure” or “flooding” because we are dealing with a real threat, not a hypothetical fear. Still, we cannot allow our fear to dominate our lives. We must finds ways to live the most normal and healthy life possible. For me, a normal life includes my run. Research supports exercise as one of the most effective relievers of stress. The positive effects of exercise last hours and it not only improves mood but also the speed and quality of our decision making. I turn to exercise at this time not only because I want to maintain a sense of normalcy but also because it physiologically aids my ability to be calm, to be happy, and to be resilient. But I need to also stay safe and so I packed accordingly and changed my running route.

By adjusting and adapting, we can recognize and avoid danger, living our lives differently from before but with the same passion and vitality. Thus by adapting, we prevent terrorists from achieving their main goal: causing us to be afraid, paralyzed, and hiding indoors.

I challenge us all to find ways to increase our resilience without taking unnecessary risks. And if you are looking for ideas, then exercise is a proven option.

About the Author
Josh Bar-On is a licensed physiotherapist practicing in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He specializes in the treatment and prevention of office related pain and injury. Josh runs a wellness program, Corporate Fitness, which seeks to make the workplace a healthier and more enjoyable environment by utilizing light exercise and team building activities. Beyond health, Josh is passionate about youth leadership and helps run a leadership initiative for American youth. Josh can be reached at corporatefitnessisrael@gmail.com or through his website http://www.corporatefitness.co.il/
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