In June 2014, Reuters columnist Jack Shafer wrote an article crediting the internet with creating a “golden age of death threats.” Long gone was the need to use a phone, typewriter, handwritten note, or even an old-fashioned, ransom-note-style message clipped out of newspapers and magazines, he said. He gave examples of actresses, writers, tech executives, professional athletes, and video-game designers who had recently received death threats, and wrote, “Advanced technology has removed most of the work and hazard from sending cowardly messages to people to frighten them.”
In the five years since that piece was published, things have, uh, not improved. Some days in the Trump era, it can feel like death threats have become Americans’ preferred way of communicating. Journalists receive death threats. So do judges, mayors, economics professors, talk show hosts, actors, 911 dispatchers, business-school students, athletes, women who credibly accuse U.S. Presidents and Supreme Court nominees of sexual assault, music festival attendees, and a weather reporter who interrupted a major golf tournament to report a tornado warning.
Threats are so commonplace for members of Congress that news reports now describe them as a “way of life.” And on Fox News, hosts have apparently embraced this fact, as we saw in May when host Jesse Watters downplayed death threats toward U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar because, in his words, “Everybody gets death threats.” If 2014 was a Golden Age, we’ve now gone platinum.
Anyone who has faced panic attacks, fear of flying, or intense hypochondria has some sense of what it’s like to be convinced you’re about to die; it’s not a feeling most people would wish on someone else. And yet that’s just what a death threat does: It weaponizes anxiety. It’s like tossing a bomb into another person’s mind.
When these threats happen, news coverage doesn’t tend to linger much on the psychological wreckage. But what exactly happens in a person’s mind and body when they receive such a threat? And what should a person do if they find themselves that unfortunate, but increasingly common, position?
Bandy Lee is a forensic psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine who received threats after publicly calling Donald Trump a danger to the country. “I imagine people cope with it differently, but in my case, I confined myself in my home for nearly a month, unable to get to my office. (There were web postings of where I worked, including pictures, addresses, and directions),” she said. “I lost half my hair and gained 20 pounds.”
Lisa Warren, an Australia-based academic and forensic psychologist who has written extensively on threats, said that some of the impact of a threat depends on the person doing the threatening. A threat from, say, a violent ex-boyfriend carries with it a tangible, known potential for danger, whereas an online threat from a stranger can trigger all kinds of poisonous “What if?” thinking, like “What if this person finds me?” or “What if they find my children?” Neither threat is pleasant, but they’re toxic for different reasons.
The impact of a threat can also depend on the person being threatened. Some people who have received a number of threats in the past may be very resilient to them, said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist, longtime FBI consultant, and psychiatry professor at the University of California San Diego. (Forensic psychology is where psychology meets the worlds of law and criminal justice. Since death threats can spur criminal investigations, many of the best experts on the subject come from this field.) “As human beings, we typically will habituate or desensitize to...noxious stimuli,” he said. And in the case of public figures like politicians or celebrities, they may walk away from a nasty tweet or email unfazed.
This unflappability, or the absence of it, can also be the result of a person’s temperament or past experiences. Some people are just born more sensitive to external stimuli than others, said Megan Eliot, a psychologist and clinical director of the National Institute of Psychotherapy’s integrative trauma program. Or perhaps they grew up with parents who helped them get back to a sense of calm when they were kids, by mirroring their distressed emotions, or who encouraged them to reach out for support in a moment of crisis. Eliot added that people who have previously experienced trauma are more vulnerable to subsequent repeated trauma. As a related point, Meloy noted that any kind of previous psychological diagnosis, for anxiety or depression or anything else, will make a person more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic event.
Beyond that, recent research on online trolling (which may have included, but was not limited to, violent threats) in the U.K. suggests that men and women may respond to threats differently. Catriona Morrison, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Bradford, recently surveyed 181 British members of Parliament who had faced online trolling to assess the effects. While male and female members of Parliament were subjected to trolling, she said the effects on women were “much more multifaceted and impact[ed]...a greater range of their behavior, both personal and professional.” These women were more inclined than men to make tangible, post-trolling life changes like going out to dinner less and increasing their personal security.
Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatry professor at Boston University School of Medicine and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, suggests that even the overall political climate can affect how a person understands a threat. In the U.S., our current president threatens people all the time and frequently indicates in other ways that he is comfortable with threats, van der Kolk said. And to have such a person leading our government allows other threatening people to follow his example. Then, when members of the president’s party and other public officials don’t speak out when the president makes or endorses threats (and Republicans largely haven’t), a new normal is established.
“For these threats to be made, and for people to pretend like it’s not happening, that is what’s scary, and that is what poisons the social well,” he said. “The issue of authority and protection, and knowing who will be there for you to protect you, is terribly important. And that is what’s falling apart in our culture right now.”
While the effects of threats can vary from person to person, it’s clear that for some segment of the population, a death threat can be devastating. A traumatic experience can stem from any situation where someone feels they may be about to die, or when they’re seeing something or terrifying, Eliot said. And if a death threat crosses that threshold—which is certainly a strong possibility—it can lead to all kinds of issues.
For instance, a threat recipient could become hyper-vigilant as a result of the message, which means they’re walking around on edge, with a mind and body tensed for danger. In this state, it’s hard to concentrate, think clearly, and take in information accurately, Eliot said. Someone might also perceive unthreatening people as dangerous, or be unable to accept support that’s available to them. “Think about being on guard, all your muscles being tensed up, [and] your heart racing,” she said. “It’s not healthy to be in that state for long periods of time, and it’s not comfortable.”
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Van der Kolk described working with a politician who was so shaken up after receiving death threats to the point that he became depressed and suicidal. Humans have a basic need to know they’re safe, to know they can walk out the door or pick up a phone without being hurt, and we want to be able to look forward to things, he said. “When you’re afraid all the time, it depreciates your capacity to take care of your kids, to be spontaneous, to be creative,” he said. “Once you really start becoming seriously concerned that you’ll get hurt, your whole life becomes very constricted.”
The severity of the language experts use to describe the effects of these threats is at odds with how casual and superficial some of the news reporting on death threats has become. Lee matter-of-factly called such threats “terrorism.” One legal article argues that death threats constitute a form of torture. Warren described death threats as “one of the most extreme forms of psychological violence.” In this era of instant, low-cost, and anonymously delivered threats, are news organizations using language that fully reflects how serious these acts are? And if not, aren’t we contributing to our culture’s overall desensitization, or even apathy, to the “terrorism” taking place in our communities?
So what do you do if you receive a death threat?
First, it’s important to remember this point from J. Reid Meloy: “Most communicated threats are not acted upon.” But this doesn’t mean they should be brushed off. Lee said that, because a person can’t live under the stress of constant threats for long periods, getting yourself to a safe physical place ought to be a top priority.
Secondly, Meloy emphasized that if you receive a threat, you should contact the authorities and preserve any evidence. Screenshot the text or tweet; save the letter, email, or voicemail. While death threats are the subject of free-speech debates, and the standards for prosecution may vary from state to state, they’re generally not legal. (Meloy’s exact words were: “You can’t go around homicidally threatening people.”) Local authorities may also be able to help you understand how much actual risk a threat carries.
The other part of the equation is getting your life back—and your healthy mind, too. Online hate mobs are frequent enough that one journalist who has experienced them, Talia Lavin, produced a bookmark-worthy guide to weathering that kind of psychological storm. Experts also said that you should certainly consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Lee said that, since threats to one’s life can trigger dissociative reactions and potentially lead to lingering issues like memory loss, anxiety, or depression, “Having someone to speak to, preferably a mental health expert, would help to put things in perspective and to detect warning signs early."
Warren said that one of the keys to getting back to normal is drawing up and implementing safety precautions aimed at controlling that “What if?” thinking that can be so poisonous. “It’s that creation of uncertainty that gives your threatener power over you. Because the more you are sitting there thinking, ‘What if they do this? What if they do that?’ [then] the threat’s worked,” she said.
She also stressed the importance for threat recipients of remembering that what happened isn’t their fault. “You’ve had an act of violence committed against you and never, ever is it something that you’ve done wrong, that you deserve, that you had coming,” she said. “This is how another person has chosen to communicate.”
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