We are all equipped with psychological filters and mechanisms to shield us from being overwhelmed by impressions causing unbearable feelings within us. The filters enable us to keep a distance from the reality and the feelings that arise in the event of catastrophes, accidents, killings etc. If we were to live the part og every single case of misery around us, anxiety and emotional outbursts would deprive us of the possibility of living a normal life.
“It won’t happen me” is a common defence mechanism that we use to live and ordinary life without worrying to death over all the terrible things that could happen to ourselves, our families and friends.
The risk of this shielding ourselves from reality is that we get used to it on the surface but that feelings of worry, powerlessness and guilt creep in on us and mix up our emotions. The constricted sense of powerlessness creates and even stronger feeling of really not being in charge of ones own life, resulting in a state of severe anxiety.
The shielding may also prevent us from seeing what we, despite it all, can do to change both our own situations and the larger course of events in the world. We become passive, resigned and indifferent to small and large.
The nuclear threat is both diffuse and overwhelming. Looking it in the eye may lead to resignation and despair. At the same time, the one who manages to stay active in the struggle for nuclear disarmament can, to hersurprise, often find hope and satisfaction in even the smallest efforts. It is as if one’s own activity and sharing of that activity with the like-minded becomes an antidote to the powerlessness.
A number of scientific studies show that children and young people in particular are affected by the nuclear threat, often ombined with a concern about climate change. Most of the studies on this topic are from the period of cold war. More recent studies may indicate a shift of the concern slightly away from the nuclear to the environmental challenges.
These young people carry an everyday anxiety, which unfortunately may lead to a wavering of their belief in the future and in the older generation’s willingness and capacity to protect them and their lives. Experience shows that children and youths feel good about ventilating their feelings and talking about their thoughts around the nuclear threat.
The responsibility for life and death
In addition to the technical problems that may cause false alarms, there is always the human factor. The nuclear weapons warning systems, just like the control systems of nuclear power plants, have to be monitored around the clock. Many accidents happen during the night, as a result of people being tired and bored.
The fear of nuclear weapons and nuclear war is a complex matter, in particular related to the apocalyptic connotations and the general fear of war and catastrophies, but also strongly influenced by fear of radiation. Radiation cannot be seen, smelled or sensed and is experienced different from observable threats. Radiation concerns are probably important parts of nuclear concerns.
This has been studied in other situations, as nuclear contamination from the nuclear power industry (e.g. after the Chernobyl disaster ) and other radiation accidents (e.g. the Gôiania accident ), or medical radiation use. Later, fear of terrorism with weapons of mass destruction have added to the scenario . Despite the radiation doses are not negligible in the radiation protection context, medical use of radiation does not seem to be a serious concern in the population.
The Chernobyl accident was experienced as very threatening in the nearby areas. But even in the far away contamination areas as in Scandinavia people reacted with fear and anxiety. European survey studies indicate a stronger reaction in areas with more than in areas with less contamination. Women reacted more negatively psychologically than men and even with longer duration.
Also in Gôiania the experiences were massive and the problems have had a long lasting impact. There are many similarities between the findings after these accidents and the findings among the atomic bomb victims in Japan, however with obvious differences in severity and scope.
Last update: January 19, 2015