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Emotional Health in the Aftermath of a Nightmare

By: Hadas Schroeder Rahamim

A few weeks ago I was present at a gathering of 9 year old kids in a Jerusalem school for gifted children. The kids were having a wonderful time trying to solve a riddle together, suggesting goofy ideas and laughing, when for some unclear reason, probably a technical malfunction, the school fire alarm went off. In a second, all joy vacated the room, the kids' bodies immediately tensed up, eyes wide and searching, smiles turned down, ”Do you think there are Hamasnikim in the building?”

It will probably always be an impossible task to give words to the non-verbal experience of acute trauma. In its essence it is a contradiction as trauma activates our pre-verbal brain structures, and reduces access to words.


In the face of danger our bodies switch operating systems and focus on survival. It's such a drastically different operating system that it may take a long time until we are completely back to our regular functioning. When the traumatic event is experienced more intensely, regaining balance can be more difficult and some people will need professional assistance.  


As mental health care providers we have been turned to many times over the past few  months to help people get back on track.


Reported levels of anxiety in Israel have almost doubled among children and teens. We are feeling it with the continuously growing number of calls we receive every day. Not everyone knows to connect their distress with the experiences of war, on the surface the symptoms can sometimes seem unrelated. However, the surge of different pathologies at this timing leaves little room for assuming coincidence. 


As we work with teens and their families, we found that psychoeducation about the effects of trauma is essential. Understanding that many different symptoms, such as behavioral regressions, sleeping difficulties, reduced concentration and higher irritability, to name a few, are a normal reaction to anxiety. The heightened arousal due to continuous exposure to stress can effect cognitive and physical functioning in ways that make daily tasks more difficult, and individuals and families are feeling it in many challenges to their routines.

 

Higher levels of persistent anxiety with slower returns to emotional baseline make parent-child conflicts more acute. Increasing parental understanding of the connection between what's happening at home and what's happening in the country has been helpful. 


To assist we have been working with many of our clients on emotional regulation techniques such as breathing exercises and grounding, helping them return to a more tolerable physical and emotional state. Being more aware of what's happening to themselves and others around them, paying attention where their thoughts are going and how their feelings respond, and incorporating more self care and self compassion into their lives has been essential as they continue to face the heightened levels of stress.


As we continue to face uncertainty here at the clinic we do our best to contribute to mitigating the mental and emotional strain people are experiencing. We pray any merit be for the immediate safe return of our hostages, and for the safety and success of our soldiers. 


Hadas Schroeder Rahamim is a Clinical and educational psychologist and Clinical Director of the Merhav L’Noar clinic in Jerusalem. 


 



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