Psychological Impacts of Nuclear Attack Threats

Nicole Summersett
March 15, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: The Jailbar thunderbolt. An air raid siren used during Cold War for alerting citizens of air raid. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On January 13, Hawaii residence received a text message alert that a ballistic missile was headed to their homes:


Panic and chaos struck the state. A whole 38 minutes later after the initial alert was sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the alert was revoked. As it turns out, the alert was due to human error and poor design choice and in fact there was never a ballistic missile inbound towards the state. The residents and tourist of Hawaii, who has been on high emotional alert, suffered extreme emotional distress due to this incidence. While this specific event was a rare occurrence, these residents live in constant fear and emotional distress everyday due to the constant threats from North Korea of an attack. This is eerily similar to the tensions and psychological effects that came from the nuclear threats during the Cold War. However, during the Cold War era people did not receive alerts of an attack on their phones but would hear a loud warning sound that came from a siren like the thunderbolt shown in Fig. 1. With tensions between North Korea and the United States continuing to rise, these threats carry more-and-more weight and have more of a psychological impact for those involved. This paper will explore the psychological impacts that nuclear threats have on humans and society.

Psychological Impacts

The fear of nuclear warfare has a huge psychological impact on the world. Harmful psychological effects include anxiety, fear of devastating war, and anxiety of lost control on ones own life. [1] Kiraly, who studied the psychological effects that nuclear warfare has, described the arms race and its effects on humanity as dangerously inhuman, immoral, and ignorant and as psychologically pathological and pathogenic. [2] He found that adults adapt to this threat on life by avoidance. They call on denial, depersonalization to deal with the fear and often become anxious, demoralized, and depressed. [2] There is an especially heavy impact in children during these times. Children do in fact understand the threat of nuclear war and are deeply disturbed by it. They often feel powerless and hopeless in the face of this threat and have doubt about the future and their own survival. [3] Having this emotional distress so young can cause lasting problems in childrens lives and in turn the community.

Lasting Impacts

These harmful psychological effects of the treat of nuclear war have lasting impacts on the community as well. The distress and psychological adaptions caused leads to emotional disorders, family breakdown, criminality, drug abuse and alcoholism. [2] This creates huge negative impacts to communities and families. There can also be positive impacts that come from fear. Increased focus on nuclear threats creates increased focus on preventing nuclear warfare. [4] This focus on how psychological effects contribute to prevention was studied by White. [5] He found that the fear of nuclear warfare allows society to become more educated and realize its destructive nature. The negative psychological affects that humans experience lead to humans wanted to prevent the initiation of it. [5]


The threat of a nuclear attack impedes a humans basic instinct to survive. The fear created from this threat leads to emotional and mental disorders, which have lasting negative impacts on both the community and the world. However, the shared fear and basic instinct to live allows the world to strive to prevent nuclear warfare.

© Nicole Summersett. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] X. Xie, "Fear of Nuclear Threat," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2013

[2] S. J. Kiraly, "Psychological Effects of the Threat of Nuclear War," Can. Fam, Physician 32, 172 (1986).

[3] K. M. McGraw and T. R. Tyler, "The Threat of Nuclear War and Psychological Well-Being," Int. J. Ment. Health 15, 172 (1986)

[4] N. Hoerner, "Nuclear Threat Psychology," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[5] R. K. White, ed., Psychology and the Prevention of Nuclear War (New York University Press, 1986).