'Panic not something we should embrace': Keeping cool heads amid new nuke fears
Chicago Tribune - 8/18/2017
Aug. 17--As President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchange ever-more-threatening rhetoric about using nuclear missiles, Jessica Mackinnon of Oak Park has been watching cable news obsessively, in fear of the worst.
"I think the thing that is scary right now is we have two really unpredictable leaders who seem to be going toe to toe," said Mackinnon, 61, who grew up during the Vietnam War and remembers diving under her desk and covering her head in grade school during nuclear-attack drills.
Twenty-year-old Jared Perovic, on the other hand, joins friends at work each day for a chuckle over the president's recent tweets promising "fire and fury" and to have nuclear weaponry "locked and loaded."
"It's entertainment at this point," said Perovic, of Buffalo Grove. "We laugh and we think it's interesting because we study government for school and it's cool to see the process."
The varying reactions demonstrate the wide range of emotions Chicago-area residents are feeling as the possibility of nuclear attack returns to regular, everyday conversations, in many cases for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
It's a spectrum that doesn't surprise psychologists and sociologists, who reason that people's historical experience, temperament and knowledge of current events all factor into the way they ingest world news. But it leaves city leaders and school administrators to navigate a delicate balance between offering enough support without causing unnecessary alarm, officials say.
"Panic is not something that we should embrace right now," said T.Y. Wang, professor and department chair for politics and government at Illinois State University in downstate Normal.
As faculty members in his department prepare for the start of fall classes, Wang said he has advised them to engage students in conversation about international affairs but to encourage active participation in the democracy, rather than fear.
"Life still has to go on," Wang said. "I'm hoping that advisers in this situation will be able to advise students to keep a cool head."
Hanna Bondarenko, a 21-year-old Chicago resident, said she has found herself contemplating the possibility of nuclear attack.
"Sometimes I sit down and think, 'What am I going to do if it actually happens? Where am I going to hide? What am I going to do for the next 50 years during the nuclear winter?'"
And while social media can be a platform for both spreading and tamping down panic, Bondarenko said she's usually able to calm her own fears quickly using technology at her disposal. It allows her to find factual information about world affairs and also lean on her peers for emotional support.
"One factor that probably doesn't make us panic is because we are living in a very virtual world, where we are all on Instagram, Facebook and Google and we hardly go off our computers," she said.
In the 1980s, amid fears of a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union, Chicago joined cities across the country in declaring itself a nuclear-free zone, prohibiting the storage, production or deployment of nuclear weapons within city limits.
The ordinance went so far to say that civil defense programs "purporting to prepare for nuclear attack (are) futile and dangerous" and prohibited local participation in such programs.
Friday, the city's Office of Emergency Management took a different tone in a statement it released to the Tribune, which said in part: "There are no known credible threats to Chicago. The Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) works to plan and prepare the public using an all-hazards approach to all disasters of scale and complexity."
In Plainfield Community School District 202, administrators have fielded more calls from parents worried about what schools will do to protect students' eyes during the solar eclipse than how they are handling children's anxieties about a possible nuclear war.
"That hasn't been a conversation yet," said Tom Hernandez, District 202's communications director. "If it is an issue, it doesn't have to be some kind of organized grief counseling session. It can be something that is addressed in the course of classroom discussions."
But at Dominican University in River Forest, health administrators are going into the new school year with plans to approach students more proactively about stress management, emotional regulation and other ways to deal with anxieties students may feel about current events.
Staff members at the campus Wellness Center plan to visit dormitories, train student leaders and produce write-ups with tips for students, said director Elizabeth Ritzman.
"A lot of students have definitely felt the impact from last year from political rhetoric, coming as an intrusion into the academic space," Ritzman said. "I think we're kind of expecting more of the same."
As an academic, Northwestern University'sDaniel Immerwahr said he probably feels heightened tension about the possibility of nuclear war. The assistant professor of history said he doesn't see the same fretting from others in his age group.
"What's remarkable about my generation, people who didn't go through all that duck-and-cover stuff in the 1950s, is that we kind of take it for granted that there's not going to be a nuclear war," said Immerwahr, 37. "My parents' generation is just marked by this expectation that this is the worst thing that could happen."
Steven Meyers, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Roosevelt University, said people's level of anxiety largely relates to their experience around similar issues. Those who have previously felt anxiety about political or nuclear threat may see those fears reactivated.
Talking about such fears can have an impact on how they're processed, experts say. Younger people in general may be more apt to discuss their emotions than their older peers, he said.
Meyers said exercise, getting enough sleep and drawing support from others can help people deal with the stress.
"People experience threat in different ways," Meyers said. "There's lot of variability."
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