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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Trauma and the Brain

Another cycle of violence

Yet another cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet again angry, fearful voices from each side. We are right; they are wrong. We are victims; they are aggressors. They are bad; we are good.

As an Israeli peace activist, I ask what can I do in a situation where change is desperately needed, yet people on both sides seem to hear only the voices for escalation. I come once again to the realization that caused me to change my career, indeed my whole life, and become a trauma specialist.

In 2006, after years of working for projects doing peacebuilding and development work I realized that unresolved trauma is at the very root of the never-ending violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Other causes lie there too, of course. But unless trauma is addressed, other responses will falter. Trauma blocks every path to sustainable peace.

Trauma as a root cause

Why is trauma such a critical obstacle in deeply-rooted conflicts? Understanding this is crucial, for when even a small number of influential people on both sides understand what trauma does to human beings, we are in a much better position, as individuals and groups, to reduce its paralyzing influence. When we recognize the impact of trauma on ourselves and others, we gain freedom and power to act from our highest potential as human beings.

This post is not about politics. It is a psycho-educational post to explain what happens to us when we are in conflict, any conflict. My hope is to help people I love and care about on both sides of a devastating divide to move beyond the fear and hopelessness they now feed in each other.

Conflict, emotions, and responses

In any violent conflict, there is great suffering, on all sides. People argue, of course, about who is suffering more. Power is not usually balanced, so there is usually one side taking bigger loses than the other.

But at the core of all violent conflict is fear and enormous amounts of pain. Here is where trauma does its devastating work. A child terrified by two missile strikes is hardly less traumatized than a child on the opposite side who experienced four. A mother who loses her child takes no comfort in the fact that more children are dying on the other side. Fear, pain and grief feel the same to the individuals experiencing them. Trauma is experienced as shattering on both sides and it profoundly alters the emotional, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual aspects of functioning of both sides as well.

Conflict activates the body's instinctual stress mechanisms

When violence, trauma, or physical injury take place, our automatic survival mechanisms pave a kind of emergency highway in the brain. Our instinctual brain activates ancient survival mechanisms that have been with humanity since our rise from the animal world. These old mechanisms take over and for a time we lose our highest, most humanizing functions. We function on an autopilot response.

This autopilot in crisis is capable of only three responses. Fight or flight are the most common, but sometimes, when we are too overwhelmed to do either of those, we freeze.

On one hand these are our survival mechanisms and they help us stay alive in times of real threat. But on the other, they take over in any time of threat (real or perceived). In these moments our ability to choose our response is greatly reduced. The patterns of ancient survival mechanisms largely control us.

How instinctual survival responses effect our functioning When we are in fight/flight/freeze mode, we function very differently than other times. The instinctual brain (see Lizard in the image) is in charge and sends powerful signals to the entire body. Heart rate, breathing, and sweat systems get turned way up high. Muscles and nervous system are tense and ready for action.

The instinctual brain takes charge of the entire brain structure. The emotional and thinking parts of the brain, which normally play a leading role and bring powers of analysis reasoning and moral guidance into our response, is shoved aside. The instinctual brain cares only about survival.

I call this instinctual functioning “lizard brain”. Like a reptile, it is quick and reactive, but unsophisticated in ability to assess, deliberate, or communicate. Flexibility, creative problem-solving, thoughtful judgment, empathy, reason, analysis, ethics? Forget it! Lizard thinks only about immediate survival.

Would you put an autopilot noted for aggressive response in charge of the war room of a modern army in battle or the coordination center for emergency response? For better or for worse, that’s pretty much what happens when human beings experience life-threat (real or perceived). Lizard brain has useful things to offer in crisis, but if allowed to linger in charge, the long-term consequences can be catastrophic.

The challenge is to induce the instinctual brain to relax its command of crisis management and allow other brain functions, like the thinking part of the brain, to re-engage. Only when Lizard brain is relaxed, can functions such as good judgment, ability to separate the past from present experience, creative problem-solving, and moral judgment be restored.

Things to remember when crisis hits

  1. Lizard brain instantly steps to the control wheel when scary or painful things happen. We’re on ancient autopilot, a mechanism so powerful that we can’t always control our response in certain situations. We are wired to think and act with much less than our full human capacities of reason, intention, and ethics in crisis. That does not exempt us from responsibility for our actions – it calls us to constantly work to bring back our rational and act with moral judgment.

  2. To regain the use of our full higher capacities requires effort and conscious choice. Our instinctual brain responds to the signs of crisis around us and floods us with signals of panic and terror. If we don’t recognize what is happening, we translate these responses to hatred and aggressive acts towards those we react against. We may find ourselves reacting strongly in situations of perceived threat. We can assist the rational mind to stay in charge, by reminding ourselves that although these are hard and fearful times and people are in danger, the sense of danger is usually much greater than the actual danger.

  3. Inner conflict is your friend in managing Lizard brain. In fact if you’re not conflicted within during crisis, you’re almost certainly under full control of Lizard brain. In times of crisis ask yourself - Where does what I am seeing or doing right now stand in my moral compass? To the extent that you are able to ask yourself this question and genuinely think about the answer, Lizard brain is no longer in charge. If all you think about and feel is how wrong and terrible the other side is, you’re probably bringing less than your full human capacities to this situation. You will overlook important information in such a state and odds are high that actions you take will make things worse on the long-term, not better. You may be wise to wait before speaking or acting.

  4. Crisis activates our instinctual response mechanisms, even when we are not directly involved. This means that simply being exposed to constant reports of the media can lead you to feel that you are under attack, even if you are in your own living room. Almost everyone who has experienced deep and painful crises in the past can be activated by similar reminders of their past experiences. This is normal! We can't prevent our old crisis mechanisms from being activated in the presence of new danger (real or perceived). However, we can help our thinking brain to get back in control.

Taking action

In violent conflicts, everyone is exposed to stress and high alert on an ongoing basis. Regardless to religion, nationality, gender, or ethnicity, people mostly respond from the instinctual part of the brain and less from rational and moral judgment.

We Middle Easterners are hot tempered. When you put together the natural hot tempers of our region and the recent violence, that adds up to a lot of lizard brains! I think most of us would admit we have a lot of experience with saying or doing things in the heat of a moment.

Every day, most of us read or hear news reports that trigger lizard brain responses in us and those around us. I invite you, the next time you find hatred or fear rising within yourself, to be mindful of what is happening to you. Try the Reset Exercise* if you feel you can't relax. Pay attention to your response. The more you get to know yourself and your responses – the more you will be able to take control over your responses. Mindfulness is like a muscle that gets stronger surprisingly quickly once you start using it – and weakens almost as quickly if you stop.

It is time to gain control and bring our thinking brains back into the equation. We have rich resources of wisdom, passion, and creativity that could guide us in creating a good future for our children. To do that --- we have to bring our full resources back into play.

*If you feel that you are too hyper (stressed) hypo (numb) try this Reset Exercise: Jump up and down (as fast as you can) 10 times. Then sit down and (preferably leaning back on something) take five long, slow, in-breaths, (each about four seconds long, then held for one second before releasing). After each in-breath, breathe out long and slow (for about six seconds). Repeat until your nervous system resets itself and your thinking brain is back in charge.

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