Dealing with terror through taking back control

The overriding symptom of stress and trauma during these times is a strong feeling of a lack of control.

Sderot trauma 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Sderot trauma 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
“How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized,” wrote Salman Rushdie, an Indian British novelist and essayist.
Few people have had such an intimate history with the barbarity of terrorism as the Israelis have. There has barely been a day when an enemy wasn’t trying to carry out a cross-border raid, blow themselves up in population centers or attack cars with rocks or Molotov cocktails.
The latest acts of terror, firing missiles at almost every major Israeli population center, has upped the ante for the home front.
For this type of terror to fail, the average Israeli citizen must successfully cope with and endure these incessant and indiscriminate attacks. Over the past few weeks, as part of my work as a social worker and clinical therapist at one of Israel’s national health insurance companies, I have been part of an emergency hotline available to the public to calm and reassure, and hopefully find some solutions for those who have become psychologically traumatized by these attacks.
Whereas during previous terror attacks, it was assumed that by avoiding populated areas one could seriously lower the chances of being exposed to a suicide attack, the rocket threat hits us in the hardest place: our homes.
Regardless of whether a rocket lands near one’s home, the siren, followed by the hurried gathering of family members into a secure room, outside under the stairs or in a race to a communal shelter, leaves us with a feeling that our homes are not the fortresses we imagined them to be and the terror has entered our sanctuaries.
Whether it is a parent frantic over the movements of their children or children who won’t let their parents out of their sight, the overriding symptom of stress and trauma during these times is a strong feeling of a lack of control.
Our routines have been vigorously altered and many are constantly thinking about the next siren and taking extra precautions that disrupt our daily activities. Children are especially affected by such changes and can frequently detect the anxiety emanating from a parent or teacher. These figures dominate a child’s life and they are expected to give off a sense of comfort and stability, which can dissipate during traumatic times.
Additionally, the fact that the conflict is raging during the summer vacation adds to the lack of routine, which affects children’s sense of stability. Parents who have to go to work while their children are home alone have additional concerns and stress.
This prolonged sense of terror has affected all parts of Israeli society, regardless of geography. Even those who are not regularly in the line of fire may experience signs of stress, and anxiety that can disrupt daily routines and emotional wellbeing.
For example, difficulty sleeping, imagining sirens, not wanting to leave secure areas and a general feeling of uneasiness and helplessness.
It is important to note the natural reaction is one of “fight or flight,” and for most when the threat ends, the symptoms disappear. However, for some the symptoms may not recede and in such cases it is important to consult with a family doctor, psychiatrist or therapist to work on a longer-term basis on overcoming these anxieties.
It is the task of a social worker or therapist to help those most affected to function normally.
The feeling of a lack of control has to be reversed, and there are various tools one can undertake to help manage the fear.
With children it is very important to give them simple, time-consuming tasks. Helping to prepare a meal, or painting a picture, not only allows the child’s mind to concentrate on the task at hand, it also gives them a sense of control over the assignment. Another important task to give to one’s child is to have them write a diary. This allows them to express their feelings, to take things one day at a time and allows the parent to gauge the emotional state of their child.
It is important to explain to children about the current situation in a concise manner and prepare them in advance in a detailed but calm manner regarding how they need to respond to a siren.
With many adults, they frequently fear not for themselves, but for their families or others, and are scared of being unable to be the pillar of strength they need to be in the moment of truth. It is vitally important for adults, especially those under constant attack, to prepare themselves mentally before embarking on any task. If they are showering, they should make a mental list of what they should do in case of a siren and prepare accordingly. It may be to have a towel or bathrobe easily accessible and the secure room ready to receive its temporary guests. Mental preparedness means having a certain level of control over a given situation and the reassurance and ability to retain a sense of normalcy.
For many, volunteering on behalf of the IDF and the residents most affected by the rocket attacks can give a person a sense of empowerment over the situation, and pride at being able to contribute to the national effort.
These and many other tools are vitally important to lessen the impact of the rocket attacks. Our homes, places of work and schools have become one of the front lines in this battle because the terrorists want to place significant pressure on our society.
Israelis have proven very capable in not only surviving, but thriving, under different types of attacks.
One of our greatest qualities is our ability to take attacks from outside and use them in a positive way by showing solidarity with those most affected, and with our soldiers who are on the real front lines.
This is also a type of coping mechanism that we as a people have learned the hard way over our long history of suffering and adversity.
We come together as one and we resist attempts to break us down in the face of unrelenting terror.
While the IDF is fighting to rid us of the Hamas threat, we can all play our part in defeating terror by simply taking control of our lives and minimizing its affects.
The writer is a social worker and clinical therapist at one of Israel’s national health insurance companies, and a certified sex therapist.