Psychology gives solace to a nation in distress

The unpredictability of terrorist attacks, now occurring almost daily, has made Israel a nation of frayed nerves. The tension is palpable, says clinical psychologist Reuven Gal, PhD.

Gal, the former chief psychologist of the Israeli Defense Forces, is now founder and president of the Carmel Institute for Social Studies, a nonprofit organization devoted to research, policy design and advocacy.

"I don't remember any period before that there was so much...stress and symptoms among people in general," he says. "You see it on the roads and in the way people are driving and behaving and so on."

Since the current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence began two years ago, Gal--a trauma expert who has conducted psychological and sociological studies on survivors of terrorist attacks--says he and his colleagues have noticed a "sharp increase" in people seeking psychological help. Hot-line services are flooded after bombing attacks. Many people seek therapy, Gal notes, but they mostly want short-term interventions, which won't delve into "background aspects" such as their childhood: They want immediate relief for their symptoms and their experiences to be validated.

Israelis who seek therapy tend to fall into two categories, says Gal, who also has a clinical practice. In the first are people who were at or near an explosion site. Usually, they weren't wounded physically but were no less affected emotionally and "feel like they were in a near-miss situation," he says. "Or they saw people right next to them exploding...or they saw a mutilated corpse." Others may not have witnessed the scene but were close enough to hear the bombing. Or they may have seen people running away and ambulances racing by, so "the impact was right there."

In the second category, people were nowhere near an attack, "but they were still affected very much," because it reactivated their memories of similar experiences. For others, "the accumulation [of victims] has reached such a high level that even without being exposed...it still affects them quite strongly," Gal says.

As a result of these experiences, the psychological disorders cropping up among Israelis run the gamut from post-traumatic stress disorder to over-vigilance, from denial to depression.

In one case, an elementary school teacher, counseled by Gal, couldn't function after direct exposure to an explosion in her community. Although she wasn't physically hurt, "for almost two weeks, she simply couldn't go to her school to teach," he says.

Another phenomenon that Gal has noticed is an intensification of symptoms or complaints among his patients with "usual, normal problems." A patient suddenly fed up with a spouse, for example, could really be reacting to the crisis. "The overall situation has become another critical factor in causing people's troubles, whatever those troubles were in the first place," he says.

The conflict has also led to divisions within Israeli society, Gal says. "Never before have I seen so much polarization, for example, in the way people are talking about the situation--and I'm talking about serious polarization.

"People will explode with statements like, 'Enough of that! We shouldn't take any more [from the Palestinians], let's kill them all!'" he continues. "On the other hand, you hear people who are screaming and shouting as loudly saying, 'Are you blind? Can't you see we have to go the other [nonviolent] way?'

"For a clinician, it's very clear that the intensity by which these political announcements are made are only the external expression of internal stress and anxiety and fear," he explains.

In fact, discussing politics in therapy sessions--normally a taboo practice--has become de rigueur in Israel. "It's quite characteristic that a therapist will talk to a patient...about whether or not there is hope or light at the end of the tunnel politically," Gal says. "You cannot distinguish or dissociate the public, the general situation, from the private stress."

Editor's Note: These articles reflect a snapshot of how these individuals see the Middle East conflict and in no way represent the position of APA or the Monitor.