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On Saturday, January 19, a false ballistic missile alert was sent out to everyone in Hawaii, due to mere human error. While there was no real threat, these people were indeed threatened, disturbed, and scared for their lives. For some, this fear subsided once Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency corrected the mistake 38 minutes later—but others will prove to suffer for days, weeks, possibly years to come. And Jessica Tappana is here to explain just how.

Jessica Tappana is a licensed clinical social worker who has focused her career in helping individuals recover from trauma, feelings of hopelessness, or otherwise overwhelming emotions. Her area of expertise made her particularly aware of and concerned for how the false missile alert in Hawaii may have impacted those who received this alert, saying that she was immediately fearful of the serious effects it could have on their mental health.

Potential Harmful Effects

“Increased anxiety, fear, feeling traumatized… these would all be understandable reactions to having received that alert. When a person feels their life is in danger for a split second because they nearly miss a car accident, they might feel off for hours. The people living in Hawaii who received the false text message went a much more extended period of time living with that fear. Furthermore, they likely worried that not only would they die but their loved ones as well.

Anytime a person feels that their life is in danger, it could be interpreted as a traumatic experience. In the case of Hawaii, some people went over half an hour believing that their life and the lives of those they love were in danger! While most people may have been able to “shake it off,” others will have a much more extreme reaction. The experience could be particularly jarring for individuals who are already vulnerable—maybe they suffer from other mental health problems (anxiety in particular), have had other scary/traumatic events happen in their lives or have trouble trusting the government in general. Anger, fear, outrage, frustration… these are all understandable responses to having felt that there may be a missile headed directly toward them and then finding out that it was actually a false alarm.

Furthermore, someone with a military background who had previously been in a situation where they had to be hypervigilant to the possibility of an attack could be re-triggered by receiving a message that a missile was headed their direction. This could bring on old traumatic memories or trigger previous PTSD. Additionally, members of the armed forces who worry about sharing their emotions and particularly fears may be especially likely to suppress the emotions they experiences over the weekend, which would lead to additional anxiety and PTSD-type symptoms.”

Managing Those Effects

1) Acknowledge your emotions.
Tappana says the first step is to acknowledge how one feels after this potentially-traumatizing and certainly scary event. “People may be tempted to invalidate themselves or may hear others minimize their emotions because ‘the threat wasn’t real.’ It’s okay to acknowledge that for that period of time, the threat was very real to them. They had every reason to believe that they may die. Regardless of the reality (that they were indeed safe), that fear alone could have been traumatizing.”

2) Process those emotions.
Once an individual has acknowledged their thoughts and feelings related to the incident, Tappana recommends they validate and process those emotions. “After acknowledging their emotions and reminding themselves that those emotions are okay, understandable, valid, I would encourage people to process those emotions. Talk to your friend, family member, pastor or therapist. Processing strong emotions allows the mind to begin to recover. By facing the emotions directly, you can work through them.

3) Seek professional help.
And finally, consider seeking professional help if the threat proves to have lasting harmful effects, as explained by Tappana: “If individuals notice themselves starting to avoid specific situations, feeling jumpy, constantly checking their phones for alerts, feeling more distrustful of the government, having nightmares, or in any way is feeling that their life is dictated by fear… it may be time to talk to a professional.”

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