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Living with fear

Anne Payne

In the last part of our series on responding to the terror threat, Anne Payne discusses ‘tending and befriending’ for overcoming fear.

The UK’s counter-terrorism unit is no longer infallible, with everyone facing a new level of danger. Although the standard line is to ‘stay strong’ and ‘carry on as normal’, it’s only right and natural that employees will feel more at risk.

Those employees undertaking daily commutes into areas that have already been affected are likely to feel particularly vulnerable. But so is anyone remotely affected as a result of watching the news or talking to those directly involved.

Is tending and befriending the antidote to terrorism?
Events such as the One Love concert, pulled together by Ariana Grande, make us all feel better, not just because they show resilience, but also because they allow everyone to unite.

This sort of social energy, known as ‘tending and befriending’ in psychology circles, serves two important purposes. Tending revolves around nurturing our young by pulling them in close to us and hugging and caring for them, keeping them safe and releasing a chemical in our brains that makes us feel less threatened and fearful. Befriending is about building communities by increasing our social connection with others, reducing the risks we face. One villager might be considered fair game by a marauding gang. But a whole village?

Unfortunately, it may be by using the power of befriending that Islamist extremists have been able to radicalise so many people. According to experts from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, the shift from extremist ideologist to actual terrorist rarely takes place exclusively online.

Although a disaffected individual might start their descent into terrorism by looking at online propaganda, it’s possibly once they join a face-to-face social network that builds strong interpersonal bonds, based on “in-group love”, that they become truly radicalised. Far from coming to their beliefs in isolation, it’s the sense of purpose and belonging that comes from joining a banned extremist group that’s the most influential factor.

There’s much to be said for increasing the powers and resources required to disband these groups and stop those who would do us harm once they get to that stage. But how much better would it be if they were never tempted to go down that path in the first place?

Throughout the One Love concert, there was much talk of choosing love and togetherness to conquer fear and hate. Soft and ineffectual as this may seem, the power of reaching out and finding reasons to connect with neighbours and form protective social relationships is not to be underestimated. Not only does tending and befriending each other give us the strength to deter threats and comfort each other through the pain of loss, it can also prevent people from becoming radicalised in the first place. Let’s face it no-one is born a terrorist: it’s a terrible path they come to, often to the great distress of their own relatives.

Of course, creating safe, inclusive, tight-knit communities that give everyone a satisfying sense of belonging is easier said than done. But if we don’t at least attempt to tend and befriend one another in good times, as well as bad, an increasing minority will continue to be sucked into dangerous ways of attempting to fill that void.

With the fight against terror as much about changing minds as it is about preventing actions, the values of unity and togetherness promoted at the One Love concert might yet turn out to be one of our most effective defences.

Employers can help by creating opportunities for employees to better connect with each other, and even form friendships, through increased social interaction. Be it the organization of parenting groups or yoga workshops or sporting events, or just getting everyone to eat lunch together, instead of in isolation at their desks. The more connected and supported employees feel at work, the more engaged, productive, resilience and less fearful they will feel.

Read the other articles in the series:


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