Less Anxious People More Stressed Out After Missile False Alarm in Hawaii

New research shows that people who had low anxiety were more stressed out after the Hawaii missile false alarm.

Less Anxious People More Stressed Out After Missile False Alarm in Hawaii
Girl expressing anxiety Tero Vesalainen/iStock

The false alarm that a missile was headed for Hawaii appeared to have caused trauma in individuals who were at a low risk of suffering from anxiety prior to the event.  

That’s the conclusion of new research coming out of the University of California and published in the American Psychologist Journal. Researchers Nickolas Jones and Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California gathered more than 1.2 million tweets from more than 14,000 users who followed Twitter accounts across Hawaii from six weeks before the event to 18 days after to ascertain how people were impacted by the false warning. 

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Missel Warning Caused Trauma 

The researchers scanned the tweets to identify 114 words that are associated with anxiety including afraid, scared and worried and gave a score to each of the words.  All of the other words in the tweets were given no score. The users were then placed into either low, medium or high anxiety groups.

What the researchers found was that those who had low anxiety before the alert stabilized after about 41 hours while the medium anxiety group recovered within 23 hours on average. Those individuals who were placed in the high anxiety group before the warning were able to stabilize almost immediately. 

Anxiety Increased During the Event 

On the whole, the researchers found anxiety on Twitter increased 3.4% every fifteen minutes during the false alarm and decreased once the all-clear was given. Interestingly, the group that had the least anxiety prior to the alert had a new baseline anxiety level that was up 2.5% after the event. Those who exhibited high anxiety prior had a baseline that was 10.5% lower afterward the false alarm ended. 

"We were surprised about our findings for the high pre-alert anxiety group," said Silver in a press release announcing the results of the study. "The literature suggests that people who experience negative psychological states, like anxiety, before a large-scale trauma, are at an increased risk for negative psychological consequences afterward. However, those individuals who before the alert generally expressed much more anxiety on a daily basis than anyone else in the sample seem to have benefited from the false missile alert instead."

Anxious Individuals Keep Put it in Perspective

In January of 2018 people living in Hawaii were shaken to their core when they received an alert from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency via radio, TV, and smartphones that a ballistic missile was headed for the island. The alert urged people to seek shelter and warned that it wasn’t a drill. It took the government 38 minutes to issue a new alert, informing residents the original message was a false alarm. 

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While most people would assume those who had exhibited high levels of anxiety prior to the false alarm would be even more stressed out, Silver thinks they were less anxious because the threat of death put their day to day worries into perspective.

"Anxious individuals may have more to appreciate when they experience a near miss and thus express less anxiety on social media after having 'survived' what would have undoubtedly been construed as a deadly situation," she said.

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