The Trauma Vortex Begins in the Human Body
Wherever there is war or conflict, there is a “trauma vortex.” The trauma vortex is set in motion at the individual level, when unresolved trauma becomes non-discharged energy in the body. This phenomenon compounds when events occur that rekindle previously unresolved trauma, reopening a flood of memories of every past injury, insult, humiliation or loss. A heightened awareness for threat—real or perceived—takes hold and a sense of ongoing danger sets the stage for violent reenactments, the hope being that these acts will at last heal the deeply wounded and traumatized feelings. Instead, however, beliefs, principles and feelings become polarized. Then intolerance and revenge seem the only viable responses.
For decades we have watched as the horrific effects of this spiraling process play out on our television screens in areas of ongoing conflict around the world. The trauma vortex thwarts opportunities for embracing true and lasting peace, Psychotherapist and Trauma Specialist, Gina Ross tells us. She has written eloquently about this destructive phenomenon that has impacted the lives of countless millions through the centuries and in her book Beyond the Trauma Vortex: The Media's Role in Healing Fear, Terror, and Violence. A victim of the trauma vortex herself, Ross fled with her family to Lebanon at the end of 1947. They were among the last Jews allowed to leave Syria for some time. Ross believes that peace will only come to the Middle East when both sides learn to care for each other.
The Middle East’s Trauma Vortex
Deeply troubling because it is one of the most protracted and entrenched rifts to threaten global stability in our time, the Middle East is a tragic example of the trauma vortex at work. Generation after generation of unresolved trauma—on both sides—created this situation Ross explains.
For the Palestinians, their collective memory holds the indelible traumatic images of the Shatilla massacre. They have lost their homes and their land. They have felt repressed, oppressed, dominated and treated as second-class people. A whole generation has lived in waiting and without hope; many of their children have been reared in poverty and schooled in revolution and hatred. They have been betrayed by their own leaders and given hope with promises impossible to keep.
The Jewish people have been oppressed, expelled and massacred for centuries. Even in their host countries they have had to endure prejudice and stigmatization. Jews all over are still traumatized by a world that did not answer their cries for help during the Holocaust. They are still haunted by the memories of the horrifying atrocities of the most organized and well-planned genocide in the history of humanity. This is collective trauma on a massive scale.
As a nation, Israel fought five wars in its fifty-two years of existence. They have come out of one nightmare, which they hardly survived as a people, to enter a new situation where they have had to fight for their survival all over again.
What needs to happen? Israel needs to abandon the use of threats and the language of power while defending Israelis from harm. They need to recognize that their quest for survival has affected another people—whether they like it or not, whether it is their fault or not—and that they need to become instrumental in facilitating the well-being of the Palestinian people.
The Palestinians need to recognize how their violent rhetoric and suicide bombers rekindle the Jewish trauma of genocide and perpetuate Israel’s mistrust, making it more difficult for all to reach a satisfactory political solution.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are deeply wounded, deeply traumatized peoples. The trauma vortex of one nation is the mirror reflection of the other.
The Healing of Nations is Possible
Over the past generation, we have learned much about the nature of trauma and healing: first on the personal and then on the collective level. Research has shown that since trauma resides in the body and not in the event, its impact can be reversed by working through the nervous system.
There are people around the world trained to work with healing trauma who can be called upon. Special techniques exist today that can help address individual healing, such as Somatic Experiencing, Eye Movement Desensitization, Reprocessing and Emotional Freedom Technique. An international trauma foundation is being formed to work with trauma in hospitals and clinics, through print media, television as well as the Internet.
Many rituals have been developed to heal trauma at the community level. There are interventions, for example, that can be done with mothers and infants of both groups, which will help heal their collective trauma. Just allowing the voices of reason in both communities to rise and declare the intention to heal and to end the violence would be in itself extremely powerful and transformative.
But the media must take some responsibility too Ross reminds us. The media can help by avoiding the repetitive exploitation of traumatic images that only escalate the conflict. There are many positive initiatives and stories that could be emphasized instead, such as the harmonious joint Israeli-Palestinian experiences, the numerous cooperative projects that already exist in schools, summer camps, hospitals, clinics and neighborhoods.
A trauma vortex is a cycle of violence that can be stopped. According to Ross, the collaboration of trauma researchers, officials and the media has the potential to transform a trauma vortex into a “healing vortex.” Healing wounded psyches, communities and nations is possible.
To learn more about healing the trauma vortex and about the influential role the media can play in effecting widespread healing, read Beyond the Trauma Vortex: The Media's Role in Healing Fear, Terror, and Violence. A companion workbook is also available.
Beyond the Trauma Vortex: The Media's Role in Healing Fear, Terror, and Violence. Workbook – Beyond the Trauma Vortex
North Atlantic Books, 2003