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The false missile alarm should encourage people to be better prepared for potential attacks in the future. 

What should have been a normal Saturday took a ballistic turn two weeks ago with the false missile alert. In the face of justified anger, concern and multiple conspiracy theories, what remains clear in this time of unrest is the opportunity to turn one’s fear into the motivation to become more aware and better prepared for potential events like this in the future.

Addressing distress

The scene on the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa campus seemed to be from a movie: sounds of the fire alarm resonating from the dorms, swarms of frantic students, clad in pajamas, leaving the comforts of their beds to seek shelter from the imminent missile threat, which was deemed a false alarm 38 minutes after it was issued.

In an email interview, undergraduate sophomore Hannah Poffenberger-Twomey recalled what she observed in her dorm the morning of Jan. 13.

“After waking to my roommate shaking my feet and, shall we say forcefully telling me to get up because a missile was on its way I was, if anything, confused and slightly annoyed ... I checked my phone to find the amber alert like warning front and center and, still in a morning daze, began to wonder if this was real or not,” Poffenberger-Twomey said. “I watched my roommate rush to move perishables from the kitchen to her bedroom in a hope to hunker down where she felt safer.”

The general confusion and terror that some students felt on that day was partially acknowledged in an email sent on Jan. 22 by the University of Hawai‘i News. In the message, it discussed the need for knowledge about what to do in the event of a missile attack, and reiterated that, based on information from the Hawaiʻi State Department of Defense, “there are no public shelters (blast or fallout) designated in the State of Hawaiʻi because of the short warning time for such an event.”

The email also stated a potentially troubling fact: “The Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency further states there are no plans to designate specific spaces as nuclear attack shelters.”

Even though “... the chances of an actual nuclear missile attack on Hawaiʻi are extremely remote,” what is left is the anxiety and terror from the false alarm, which may extend into the near future as the threat of potential war with North Korea (or any country, for that matter) continues to loom over our heads.

Restructuring negative emotions

Although a threat of a potential attack is deemed low by officials, students may still feel afraid. This fear, supplemented by the events of Jan. 13, can make people anxious and have negative effects on society.

UH Mānoa Psychology (PSY) Professor Daniel Rempala, who teaches PSY 324: Psychology of Emotion, stated in an email interview that the amalgamation of anger and anxiety can become “unpleasant ... and potentially could lead to aggression or withdraw.”

Rempala further explained this with the scope of the missile scare.

“If people are angry or concerned, they are more likely to interpret incoming information as being threatening. In the case of the false alarm, the threat is addressable,” Rempala said. “As a result, the government, the warning system, and the actors involved have all been the focus of a lot of anger. In the case of nuclear attack from a foreign power, the threat is not directly addressable for the average citizen.”

While negative reactions to the false missile alarm are justified, anger can only get one so far. Living in fear of an attack or placing blame on outside forces is not an ideal way to deal with a situation like this.

When the environment is not suitable, one must not forget that they also have power over how they react and what steps they can take to make the situation better.

Rempala offers insight on how one can restructure their anxiety.

“Regardless of the specific action taken, taking action itself makes one feel more control over the threatening situation and less like a victim,” Rempala said. “The specific strategies that a person could use are almost too numerous to list. Some general strategies include distraction (e.g. engaging in an activity so that one does not think about the source of threat), perceiving the threat in a more realistic way (e.g. acknowledging the low probability that a nuclear attack would actually happen and/or work), and minimizing the health consequences of distress (e.g. through exercise or meditation).”

Poffenberger-Twomey also believes that UH students can take steps to fortify their sense of security.

“Negative emotions felt that day can be used to organize plans on what we should do in these kinds of situations. My roommates, for example, all said after the fact that they did not think to do some things, such as find the safest places, prepare food, or call their loved ones,” Poffenberger-Twomey said. “People should take the emotions and thoughts they had that day, especially those they had after the confirmed false alarm, and create detailed plans on what to do if it were to happen again. Kind of like when children make or have a fire escape plan with their parents and/or school.”

It’s okay to be afraid

It would be illogical to believe that preparation can ease all anxieties and fears. Those negative emotions will still be felt, but it is important that one uses their concern to motivate them to better prepare for potential emergency situations.

Poffenberger-Twomey stresses the importance of staying level-headed and keeping fear in check.

“People should remember that being afraid is okay, but panicking can cause someone to not think straight and miss easy choices and chances they had,” Poffenberger-Twomey said. “Keep calm and live on. (cheesy like the shirts).”

More information regarding nuclear threats, as well as the missile alert on Jan. 13, can be found on the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s website.