Eisenbud's Odyssey: Anti-anxiety nation

The world has much to learn from a group of people who somehow continue to maintain their balance and composure, despite being within the eyes of unrelenting perfect storms.

Don't reuse (photo credit: MCT)
Don't reuse
(photo credit: MCT)
When I was living in New York City, I knew dozens of men and women – sadly, even children – who lived in a chronic state of fear of varying degrees, resulting in a reliance on anti-anxiety medications. Based on the mass media’s ratings-driven “if it bleeds it leads” ethos, compounded by the trauma that 9/11 brought the city, it’s little wonder why. To be sure, if America was a “Prozac Nation” in the ’90s, by the time I moved to Israel in 2010, it had become conditioned to be a “Xanex Nation.”
The numbers speak for themselves: According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders have become the most prevalent form of mental illness in the US, afflicting some 40 million Americans aged 18 and older (roughly 20 percent of the country’s adult population). This costs the US more than $42 billion a year – nearly one-third of the country’s $148b. total mental health expenditure, according to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
Indeed, US anxiety levels have reached epidemic proportions, despite the fact that America’s borders are comparatively secure, and its citizens have endured a relatively nominal number of terrorist attacks.
Conversely, and counter-intuitively, data shows that the prevalence of anxiety among Israelis is markedly lower, despite the country’s epically volatile borders and constant acts and threats of violence against it.
While this information is based on a relatively limited body of research, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Academic Studies, only 8.6% of the general Israeli population take anti-anxiety medications – over 50% less, per capita, than their American counterparts.
Furthermore, according to Psychiatric and Behavioral Disorders in Israel, published in 2009, a World Mental Health Survey found that Israelis have a 5.2% average lifetime prevalence of any anxiety disorder.
Given Israel’s geopolitical quagmire and the disproportionate threats it continues to face, the authors concluded: “This is striking, as it is one of the lowest rates found in any of the numerous participating countries – for which rates ranged from 5% to 31%.”
To be sure, the juxtaposition is remarkable.
But the million-dollar question is: Why aren’t Israelis popping Xanex like M&M’s, considering the exponentially elevated levels of danger they face?
The answer may be less complicated than most think.
ISRAELIS DON’T bury their heads in the sand, and are in no way immune to fear or anxiety. On the contrary, they’re acutely aware of the many clear and present dangers surrounding them at any given time – going so far as to create various state-of-the-art early warning detection systems.
The difference between Israelis and their Western counterparts, I believe, is that they have experienced so much unabated violence and tragedy since the country’s founding in 1948 that they have been forced to become mentally conditioned to absorb and compartmentalize the blows – and to productively move on – more than the citizens of any other democracy in the modern world.
This is not so much a choice as an ultimatum, as the alternative is living amid an untenable contagion effect of fear and panic, until finally going mad. Or worse: of leaving the country they so desperately need and love.
Ultimately, Israelis’ resilience is the result of an advanced psychological survival mechanism based on adapting to hard, untractable realities. In short, it’s Darwinism in real time.
One need not have a PhD in psychology to understand the simplicity of this logic.
Clinical data aside, I have experienced firsthand how Israelis deal with trauma.
MY FIRST assignment as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post was on the afternoon of March 23, 2011, when a terrorist bomb went off during rush hour near the capital’s busy central bus station – where thousands of men, women and children were coming and going from work and school.
The result of the explosion, beyond killing a female British tourist, was no different than it would be anywhere else: pure hysteria.
As I ran to the site of the attack, I saw hundreds of people attempting to flee to safety with terror in their eyes. Several helicopters hovered overhead and innumerable soldiers and police officers rushed to the scene in cars, on motorcycles and by foot, machine guns in hand.
Paramedics treated dozens of bloodied victims of the shrapnel, as teenagers stared blankly off into space, trembling, or clutching one another in tears while weeping inconsolably. Horrified parents rushed to the scene with bloodshot, tear-soaked eyes, desperately trying to find out whether their children or spouses were safe.
Others were glued to their cell phones, telling their loved ones they were still alive.
Every single person I interviewed was profoundly traumatized.
It was hell on earth.
HOWEVER, HERE’S what sets Israelis apart: The next day, even as trails of blood were still being cleaned off the sidewalks, it was business as usual in Jerusalem. Despite having their cage mercilessly rattled, Israelis returned to a life that most people would have gladly evacuated in the blink of an eye.
In a follow-up story I put together a few days after the bombing, I interviewed sabra after sabra – young and old – all of whom said the same thing: “Life must go on.”
It was humbling to hear, and I reported their sentiments with great pride.
Indeed, their uniformly stoic responses inspired me to write an e-mail to my concerned family and friends saying that despite working and living near the site of the deadly attack – and facing the danger of another one just like it – I would stay in the country, following the examples of my brave brothers and sisters.
OVER A year has passed since then, littered with numerous unconscionable acts of violence perpetrated against the men, women and children of this country. And while the definitive clinical jury may still be out as to why they are so resilient against a backdrop of unrelenting terror and antagonism, their grace and courage under fire remains transcendental to me.
There is no doubt that we all have much to learn from this most unusual group of people, who continue to thrive and celebrate life, despite the many threats and obstacles against them.
In the meantime, even as gas masks are being distributed to the general population here amid incessant threats by a sadistic tyrant attempting to wipe them off the face of the earth, nothing will change this fact.
That is just one of the reasons I proudly stay here.