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Terrorism is a public health issue in more ways than one. Besides the obvious threat to life and limb when an individual or group carries out a violent action, there is a measurable emotional response the rest of us have to terrorist acts. These responses can have a profound impact on our behavior.

“It’s not the event itself (that exclusively causes the emotional response), it’s also the meaning we assign to the event,” Dr. Glenn Lipson said, a noted Forensic Psychologist and program director at the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University San Diego.

That’s why different people can have dramatically different responses to the same event. When the McDonald’s massacre happened in San Diego in 1984 (at the time the largest mass shooting in U.S. history), Dr. Lipson, then a Ph.D. student at the California School of Professional Psychology, focused his doctoral dissertation on how law enforcement officers were affected by the event. His research found that the more often an officer ate at a fast food restaurant, the higher his/her emotional response was to the tragedy. In other words, there was a correlation between officers who could easily visualize themselves at scene of the traumatic event that was influencing their emotional response.

More recently one of Dr. Lipson’s doctoral students at Alliant San Diego, Jessica Mueller, became interested in using internet data to predict social psychology trends. That interest evolved into a project to measure emotional response to acts of terror. Together Dr. Lipson and Mueller created the “Terrorism Emotional Arousal Measure” (TEAM) questionnaire that asks 26 questions related to how an individual feels and responds to terrorism. The questionnaire takes about 15 minutes to complete and can be self-administered, with answers ranging on a five-point scale from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree.” Up to this point no similar tool has been available.

The practical application of the tool is to help identify when individual’s emotional response to acts of terror has become unhealthy. For example, Dr. Lipson has found some people become so wrapped up in terrorist acts that they get caught in a loop. They continuously seek material, on the Internet and TV, that feeds their anxiety or fear. They listen to the same interviews, watch the same footage, and read the same passages, over and over. They change their normal pattern of behavior, refusing to visit public places or leave their house.

The TEAM questionnaire could help individuals self-identify when they need to seek help or alert counselors, spiritual leaders, or other trusted advisors when someone in their social circle is in need of extra care and attention.

The measurement tool is still in testing but Dr. Lipson has high hopes it may be a public health solution to reduce the number of people who let their anxiety about terrorist acts reach unhealthy levels.

To check your terrorism emotional arousal score, click here. Initial studies show a score of 50 is about average for the general population, but was eight points lower for a classroom of undergraduate students. The scoring will become more relevant and refined as more data is collected.

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