In Zaatari Refugee Camp, I met a wonder woman – Wejdan Jarrah. She is a psychologist with a master in psychosocial counceling, from Yarmouk University, Jordan. She has developed the Peace Oasis Project for the Lutheran World Federation/World Service and her passion for helping youth deal with emotions and grow in self esteem and in their sense of community, is outstanding. I asked her to write about her motivation and her work – and I think it very clearly explains why it is so important to understand why the brain also needs first aid in traumatic situations.
“At the beginning of my work experience, I thought that working in crisis and with people after the crisis was an exciting adventure as I have an enterprising spirit, in addition to willingness to help others. But when I started my studies, visiting people in the field and doing research, I really felt the profound stress they experienced, hearing about the tragic circumstances which forced them to flee from their homes and leave their life behind. Individuals and groups were describing common difficulties and problems arising from living such a long time under profound stress.
Profound stress can change brain function, like when people live their whole life in survival mode and detachment, with limbic overload. The limbic system is a part of the brain that contains an individual’s memory (emotional brain of a person) and the stress may cause learning disabilities (traditional chalk and talk) and difficulty remembering new information. You find higher rates of depression and anxiety, loss of impulse control, inability to focus on others and loss of ability to recognize social norms (e.g. nose-picking while holding a conversation with someone). Creative memory (not synonymous to lying) is also a feature. The survival mode is a human state of instinctive responses, especially after facing life-threatening danger and prolonged fear. Hyper-arousal follows, with limited control/ability in modulating arousal and acting consciously. Fight/flight/freeze-responses with high-risk behavior, addiction, violence and desensitization is not uncommon. Detachment is a state where the mind closes down specific areas of the brain so that the body can survive.
This provides a great survival skill, but for short-term only. It causes delayed or no ability to receive new information, instructions and to create memories (short term), and also disrupts the production of meaning and storage of memory. Dissociation from the self-image is often experienced, where a person can’t visualize or feel the self, pain, hunger or any other emotion. Dissociation from experiences can also happen, where a person simply cannot remember certain experiences. So can severe problems with imagining immediate future, which can give a deep sense of hopelessness. Desensitization takes away the ability to empathize with others.
Profound stress can leave dangerous effects on generations, children, families, and community. The community needs our support to overcome and recover. After six months in the field, I discovered that humanitarian work is much more than helping others. For me humanitarian work is life itself.”
For more info on you, me, war and the Peace Oasis project with options to donate: http://bit.ly/1SQz26s