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Paris Attacks: The Mental Scars of Terrorism

The extreme trauma of a terrorist attack like the one in Paris can take a widespread psychological toll on victims, relatives and even distant observers. Continue reading →

When terrorists strike, as they did in Paris in a coordinated attack orchestrated by the Islamic State that left at least 128 people dead, the events are felt around the world as images and video of the aftermath pour through mass communications channels.

Terrorists choose their targets not based on military or political importance, but rather emotional and visceral impact, as I note in an earlier post. After extremists strike, there are notable behavioral and psychological changes among both victims and observers of terrorist actions.

PHOTOS: Terror Plots That Failed:

Behavioral Impacts of a Terrorist Attack After a terrorist attack, those affected by the assault covet control, according to a study by Vanderbilt University researchers published in September in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

The study analyzed the effects of terrorist attacks on consumer behavior, specifically among those affected by extremist actions in Israel. After all, one of the aims of such actions is to disrupt economic and commercial activity and the researchers found that consumers will change their habits in the wake of a terrorist attack, at times drastically.

For example, as suicide attacks often target restaurants, some of the study's participants chose to sit near the kitchen when they dined out, creating the possibility of an alternative exit in an attack, a subtle change in otherwise normal behavior. Others, however, quit restaurants entirely for fear of a terrorist attack.

The greater the sense of a loss of control a particular victim or observer feels, the more dramatic the changes in behavior to regain a sense of stability, the researchers found.

What Does a Target Reveal About a Terrorist?

The Psychological Toll of Terrorism The immediate impact of a terrorist attack is physical, claiming lives and causing injuries. But psychological damage quickly follows. As Arieh Shalev, an NYU School of Medicine psychiatry professor, explained in "Treating Survivors in the Acute Aftermath of Traumatic Events (PDF)":

Shortly after exposure, the traumatic event ceases to be a concrete event and starts to become a psychological event. As such, it has to be metabolized and assimilated, that is, become part of the survivor's inner network of meanings and experiences.

Traumatic events are not only internalized, but repeatedly recalled, reassessed and progressively assimilated. As a result, early intervention is necessary to help recovery, the author writes.

If left unaddressed, particularly among those who deal with long-term exposure to terrorism, the stress can take a physical toll, according to research published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a study of over 17,000 Israelis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers found that fear of terror was a major contributor to increases in resting heart rate, a predictor of death from cardiovascular disease, stroke and other causes.

Video: Explainer: 3 Lesser-Known, Active Terrorist Groups

Changes in Beliefs Psychological impacts aren't limited strictly to victims. A 2013 study published in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences looked at the long-lasting emotional toll of the 2004 Beslan massacre, in which Chechen terrorists took an entire school hostage, a tragedy that ended in the deaths of 385 people.

Victims, relatives and others emotionally connected to an extreme traumatic event suffered severe emotional anguish. In particular, basic beliefs they once held changed. For example, researchers found that among adults, "beliefs in meaningfulness and benevolence of the world were destroyed," the authors wrote.

Winning the Psychological War?

To the extent that terrorists use violence to elicit a strong emotional and psychological response, they're effective at the most basic level in inducing mental anguish and affecting some behaviors and beliefs.

Reactions to traumatic events, however, are complicated. Everyone looks to reestablish a sense of security in different ways, and this can often result in affected individuals and observers coming together. Look no further than the global response to the Paris attacks of countries incorporating the colors of the French flag in their landmarks.

On a local level, among those who most closely felt the attack, behavior can sometimes be counterintuitive. Take the example of the reaction of young people in London following the 7/7 bombings in 2005.

According to an article published in the book "Evolutionary Psychology and Terrorism," attendance at nightclubs in the capital increased that month, a trend not seen elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Rather than locking themselves in their homes to feel secure, young London residents congregated in large numbers in public.

Can You Spot Terrorists Before They Act?

Extremist actions can lead to dramatic reactions. But through resilience and resolve, recovery is possible.

Mourners gather in Paris the day after terrorist attacks claimed the lives of at least 129 people.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two terrorists responsible for the bombing carried out at the Boston Marathon this year