In the Wake of Terrorist Attacks Misplaced Anger May Mask Fear and Sadness


By Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD
Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon

Copyright © 2001, Jennifer J. Freyd
LIMITED CIRCULATION PERMISSION: The author gives the following limited permission for circulating this essay. It may be circulated in electronic version so long as this copyright and use statement is included and the essay is not modified in any way. No circulation for profit is permitted. I retain all other rights (including non-electronic-medium rights of publication.)

A version of this commentary appeared as "Misplaced anger may mask fear and sadness" by Jennifer J. Freyd. Register Guard, September 24, 2001, p. 9A.

Another version of this commentary appeared as: Freyd, J.J. (2002) In the wake of terrorist attack hatred may mask fear. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 2, 5-8. Table of contents: <> Full text of ASAP published article:


In Wyoming an angry group of shoppers chased a woman and her children from a Wal-Mart, apparently because the woman and children were Muslim.  In New York a young Manhattan couple yelled insults at a Lebanese-American who was searching for survivors from the arts center he had run at the World Trade Center.  A mosque in Denton Texas was firebombed. 

Why have these and other similar expressions of hostility toward people of Middle Eastern heritage already occurred across the US following the September 11 terrorist attack?  Surely we know that all Arabs or all Muslims are no more responsible for the horrific tragedy than are all Irish or all Christians responsible for terrorism in northern Ireland.  Surely we do not want to repeat acts reminiscent of our own history of severely mistreating innocent Japanese Americans during WWII.  Surely we don’t want to engage in the same sort of racism and hatred of innocent people that we find so abhorrent in other lands.  If we know all this, why are we displaying hostility toward innocent people?

As a research psychologist I struggle to understand these reactions.  Part of the answer may reside in the way we cope with strong emotions.  In the wake of the Sept 11 tragedy, emotions of fear, sadness, and anger are to be expected.  However, it is important to know that anger, for many, is an “easier” emotional state than is grief or fear.  While there is much to be angry about, there is also much to grieve and much understandable fear.   One way we often cope with sadness or fear is by focusing our attention on our anger.  Particularly when the fear is high, anger may be a way to feel safer and in control.  In other words, anger can be used to mask emotions of sadness and fear. 

While anger can be an appropriate response to threat or injustice, hiding behind anger for a prolonged period can be harmful --  both to the person hiding behind the anger, and to those around that person.  Underlying feelings of grief and fear may fester.  Strong emotion that is not addressed can harm the body and mind in all sorts of ways.   In contrast, much research shows that acknowledging grief and fear through self reflection, writing, and social communication is healthy for the individual doing the acknowledging.

Equally important, hiding behind anger can cause us to harm others.  We may seize on convenient targets to vent the anger.  We may feel hatred and we may behave with prejudice.  Even if we don’t act out our anger, we may be unavailable emotionally to other people if we are denying our own fear and grief. 

Research in psychology provides some insight into the relationship between fear, anger, and hatred.  Most animals naturally respond to threat with either flight or fight.  When flight is not an option we are likely, at a very basic psychological and physiological level, to feel the need to fight. Anger and hatred of the enemy is one way our minds might try to help our bodies prepare for a frightening survival situation.  The problem is that this basic psychological response evolved for one-on-one threat situations, but the response is often poorly suited to our complex modern world. Anger in this context is likely to fuel an “us/them” mentality because in a fight situation we need an enemy to hate.  Especially when we haven’t fully examined the range of our own emotions, we are likely to identify an “enemy” prematurely, and to categorize some people as the “enemy” so that we can have a target for our anger. 

While this response of anger and hatred is understandable, it is likely to cause all sorts of additional harm if left unchecked.  Fortunately, human beings are not restricted to basic physiological reactions to threat.  As mature individuals, and particularly as a community, we can work together to respond to our current situation constructively.  A first step for many of us is to acknowledge the complexity and range of our emotional responses. 

It is also fortunate that humans, as social creatures, do have a constructive alternative to the fight-flight reaction to threat.  This social reaction to threat has recently been termed: “tend-and-befriend.”  Acts of caring and compassion and unity can help us.  Psychologists studying tend-and-befriend responses have suggested that there is a physiological basis for this response as well. It is clearly better suited for many threat situations.  The current terrorist attack is a great example of where tend-and-befriend will likely help us while fight-or-flight will likely lead us to further harm.

It is important for people’s own well being, as well as the safety of those around them, to take care to avoid hiding behind anger.  How to do this?  Reflect, write, talk.  Most people will have real and legitimate anger in response to the events on Tuesday, but in addition to the anger other feelings are extremely important to acknowledge.

In this particular case there is a very specific way we can proceed constructively:  In addition to offering help to victims of the September 11th tragedy, also acknowledge the risk that in our anger we may lash out at innocent targets, such as “all Arabs” or “all Muslims.”  Then reach out to an Arab or Muslim friend or acquaintance, express concern and willingness to help, and encourage him or her to talk about this tragedy; you'll probably find yourself listening to a somewhat different perspective from yours.  Take the step now to offer comfort to innocent people who are most likely to be hurt as we go forward.  Doing this will help you too – it’s not just for your Arab or Muslim friend.  It will help you understand your own feelings of anger, fear, and sadness.  It will help you be part of a larger community.  Tend-and-befriend for your own well being.


Thomson, Derek (2001, Sept. 14). Arab-Americans feel backlash. Retrieved 16 Sept 2001 from World Wide Web: (2001, Sept 17). Hate crime reports up in wake of terrorist attacks. Retrieved 22 Sept 2001 from World Wide Web:

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Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). "Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process." Psychological Science 8(3): 162-166.

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Taylor, Shelly E., Klein, Laura C., Lewis, Brian P., Gruenewald, Tara L., Gurung, Regan A. R., & Updegraff, John A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight, Psychological Review, 107, 411-429.

Additional J Freyd comments on psychological reaction to terrorist attacks

Copyright © 2001, Jennifer J. Freyd
LIMITED CIRCULATION PERMISSION: The author gives the following limited permission for circulating this essay. It may be circulated in electronic version so long as this copyright and use statement is included and the essay is not modified in any way. No circulation for profit is permitted. I retain all other rights (including non-electronic-medium rights of publication.)

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