War and psychic trauma


 JUL 07, 2022 – DAILY SABAH

A woman is seen at a graveyard, ahead of a mass funeral in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, July 11, 2020. (Reuters Photo)

A woman is seen at a graveyard, ahead of a mass funeral in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, July 11, 2020. (Reuters Photo)

War is synonymoous with loss, emigration, separation and death. War forces us to face the threat of destruction and the deprecation of individual and national existence. Even in wars where one side is superior to the other, there is no winner. Everyone loses in one way or another. Where there is loss, there is psychic trauma. Unfortunately, events that cause psychic traumas (war, attack, occupation) are very common in the world. Psychic trauma can be defined as the effects of unexpected and extraordinary events that cause intense fear, arouse feelings of helplessness, threaten the integrity of the soul and body of the person, and are mostly caused by unexpected and extraordinary events.

After many years, such traumas can still have an impact on people’s lives. For example, a person who flees a war or conflict environment may still hear the sounds of conflict, remember images of corpses and smell gunpowder even years later. This situation seems so real that the individual cannot run away, hide or talk about their dreams even though there is no longer a threat. It doesn’t have to be a trigger to cause this reaction. The revival of these memories is enough to disturb a person and prompt visceral reactions. Bodily reactions such as boredom, tremors, palpitations and shortness of breath are common.

The individual unconsciously avoids situations to protect themself. Avoidance reactions are the avoidance of any environment that reminds one of a traumatic event. The individual does not participate in conversations about the event and avoids the place where it took place and the feelings and thoughts that remind them of the incident. For example, survivors of the Bosnian massacre may avoid talking about the massacre, avoid traveling to Bosnia and stay away from Serbian and Bosnian-themed conversations and activities. Again, the survivors of the massacre may distance themselves from feelings such as fear of death and helplessness.

Sometimes the brain deletes some fragments of the traumatic event. Even if the person wants to remember, they are unable to. This is because too many bad feelings are recorded in these deleted episodes, and the brain cannot tolerate them, so it prefers to suppress them. This is something that is done unconsciously.

Similarly, in the case of psychic trauma, the individual may experience social isolation, feelings of alienation from the environment and oneself because they believe that no one can understand them. Individuals may lose contact with their emotions and not show any effect.

In addition, having difficulties while trying to fall asleep is common. It may take hours to fall asleep due the trauma, and the person may be easily awakened by sounds that would not normally wake them up. Individuals may have nightmares and delusions.

Generation to generation

Epigenetic studies show that emotional traumas are passed on to future generations. In studies conducted on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the Vietnam War, it was found that PTSD has increased and it is most commonly experienced by soldiers who served in hot conflict environments and have finished their duty and returned to civilian life. These findings showed that even nearly a decade after the war ended, for many veterans their PTSD had developed into a chronic condition.

The human brain is programmed to protect itself. Our survival instinct is stronger than we think. Therefore, from infancy, we develop ways to protect ourselves in moments of intense stress. These are called defense mechanisms. These mechanisms work illogically and the main goal is to protect the individual from the current terrifying emotion. Some are healthy and functional, while others are unhealthy.

The mental trauma

The most common unhealthy mental mechanisms that we unconsciously develop in traumatic situations such as war or occupation are denial, somatization and identification with the aggressor.

Denial is the rejection and perception of the situation that threatens the integrity of the self as if it did not happen. The first thing we do in the traumatic events that happen to us is to ignore them. Because the truth is terrifying.

Somatization is when the human mind feels it cannot cope with the stress it faces and these negative emotions manifest in the body as physical pain.

Identification with the aggressor appears in situations that threaten the person’s self, such as war. The person who feels threatened unconsciously perceives themself as the victim and the other party as the oppressor. While the individual feels worthless, inadequate and helpless as a victim, they perceives the oppressor as strong and capable. In the process, as the only way to get rid of these negative emotions, the victim internalizes the oppressor’s behavior and the victim themself becomes cruel. The victim tries to keep their inner world in balance by doing to others what was done to them. Briefly, we can explain identification with the aggressor as turning oneself into the feared person, nation or state. This transformation starts with the outer appearance and progresses to the inner world. First, our appearance starts to resemble the aggressor, our attire, then our mindset and then our inner world.

In fact, a healthy response is to be in solidarity against this tyranny, to show emotional and behavioral unity against the tyrant. It’s also important to be able to openly express feelings in the face of violence and terror spread by the tyrant. Anger is being angry and doing it out loud.


Specialist clinical psychologist, Istanbul Gelişim University

source https://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/op-ed/war-and-psychic-trauma

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