The coronavirus is a collective pandemic unlike any traumas that Israelis have faced before. While experts look to trauma research to understand how to manage the psychological effects of the current situation, Dr. Danny Brom disagrees. He believes that calling our reaction a ‘traumatic response’ is misleading and that interventions to reduce psychological trauma and over-alertness are misplaced.
Brom has been working with trauma all his professional life. He moved to Israel from the Netherlands in the late 80’s and founded Metiv, the Israel Psychotrauma Center, affiliated with Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem. Over the years, and as the center grew, it moved from a small office to its current home in the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot. While everyone who walks through the door has an individual story, overall Israelis’ major traumatic events have remained constant: terrorism, road accidents, military PTSD and interpersonal traumas including violence and abuse.
“These traumas most often place us in survival mode,” Brom explained as we sat down to discuss the current crisis. “But this current pandemic is very different. We are in a life-threatening situation but our reaction does not involve the traditional fight-or flight response.”
The traditional survival mode response detects danger, fills the body with adrenaline and activates the associated nervous system responses. We then react, most often, in an appropriate manner. It is not something we learn, rather it is instinctive, a natural bodily response.
“But now we are being told to sit at home, don’t do [anything] … and in fact isolate ourselves … this is the opposite to how we believe a trauma reaction should play out,” Brom said. “If you look at major events in Israel such as terrorist attacks or wars … suddenly everyone feels together and … that’s how we calm ourselves down.”
Connecting to others is what makes us social beings. From birth, we generally seek connection, crying to get our needs met and smiling to engage our caretakers. The move towards self-regulation is prized as a key psychological skill, but more recently psychologists have reverted to highlighting the combination of self-regulation together with attachment-seeking behaviors as crucial to emotional wellbeing.
When we have access to, and are able to engage with, those close to us, we are better able to regulate our own emotions. When this ability to utilize relationships to others is limited, even if online communication enables some level of contact, a crucial mechanism for coping is also reduced.
Additional to the loss, or reduction, of a crucial coping mode, what makes this national trauma so distinctive is the lack of a concrete enemy, an immediate threat or specific event. Again, we are not dealing with a typical fight-or-flight (or even freeze) response, we are predominantly faced with a depressive response and one of loss; a loss of freedom, of physical and emotional contact and of economic security.
This loss can induce feelings of sadness, loneliness and grief, not necessarily helped by calming the traditional survival mode system. Whereas the survival mode system entails a recruitment of energy expenditure followed by a calming and re-regulation response, the current situation demands a level of acceptance, bunkering down and waiting it out.
“We need to suffer through this traumatic pandemic with the hope that it will pass, whilst doing things which increase activity, both physical and emotional, and enable us to make the best of the current situation,” Brom advised. “Of course reduction of anxiety is a factor, but rather than relaxation exercises, we need to turn our attention to finding meaning, forging connections and helping others.”
So why, with Passover approaching, is this national trauma different to all others?
Because we need to engage a new coping strategy. We need to actively seek connection rather than engage the enhanced unity which has been prevalent in previous traumas and we need to accept and seek activation rather than relax and calm a traditional survival mode response.