It’s paralyzing to feel scared, said Gina Ross, an expert on the effects of trauma.
“Discharge the fear,” she said.
For Ross, an expert in somatic therapy, that means recognizing the source of the fear and then reviewing it before letting it dissolve into the ether.
“If you don’t discharge the fear, you can’t orient yourself to the danger,” said Ross. “You become isolated and that has a lot of impact on the person who’s attacking.”
It’s one of the tenets of somatic experiencing or therapy, the trauma psychology that Ross has been practicing for more than 15 years. The method was created by master somatic therapist Peter Levine, whose form of therapy is aimed at relieving symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by focusing on a person’s perceived body sensations.
Something clicked for Ross upon first hearing about the therapy, and she found herself with a kernel of understanding that trauma and its effects are the cause of many of the world’s seemingly unsolvable situations, like Israel’s.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, here are the tools,’” she said. “I wasn’t involved in trauma before that, and I started realizing that it’s behind a lot of the disturbances in the world. We can heal people at the mass level and you don’t have to be in therapy for twenty years, one on one, something that most people can’t afford.”
Ross — who lived briefly in Israel as a young adult — wanted to try and heal Israeli and Palestinians in an effort to move toward peace in the region.
She trained in the method and created EFAST, Emotional First Aid for Stress and Trauma, a technique based on the somatic method that can be used as a self-help tool for recovering a sense of control after a traumatic event. She opened the International Trauma-Healing Institute in the US and in Jerusalem, as well as the Israeli Trauma Center at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, and spends her time traveling between both places.
What Ross and her colleagues have found is that trauma is regulated in the nervous system. When something happens that overcomes the nervous system, the person gets re-regulated, said Ross, which in turn affects emotions, behaviors and the person’s mental and thinking process.
“The physiology is disturbed,” she said. “They can’t eat, or they overeat, they can’t sleep. It’s very costly on a social level and then consider that on a collective level.”
Trauma, said Ross, requires healing, like any other injury. Without it, victims can’t move on.
It’s a message that has taken on greater impact over the last weeks, as the Los Angeles-based professional was in Israel working with groups of people affected by the latest wave of violence.
“We need a deep understanding of fear in the system and what it causes in terms of trauma and results,” said Ross. “If you’re overtaken by suspicion and fear then you lose the ability to react and you use up precious life energy. And then it’s not being used for something else.”
Ross came from a close, extended Syrian Jewish family that was one of the last to leave Aleppo in 1947 and lived in Lebanon for a decade before eventually settling in Brazil, where she spent her adolescent and teenage years.
Ross said she didn’t experience a sense of trauma despite the multiple moves. Her own memories are of giving coffee to soldiers taking cover behind sandbags on their street in Beirut, and of living in the Lebanese countryside for several days with her mother’s dressmaker while her parents prepared to leave for Brazil.
“We would pick green onions for the salad,” she said. “I don’t have traumatic memories; I don’t remember feeling traumatized by any of that.”
She says she did gain a deep understanding of how trauma affects people personally and globally, and how it effects change in the world.
“There was no feeling of victimhood or trauma in my family,” said Ross. “We had a very strong connection as Jews and we knew Muslims well. We had a deep, primary faith that could recognize what was happening in the Muslim world.”
Trauma work that never ends
Throughout Israel’s successive security situations, whether caused by rockets from Gaza launched into the southern border towns, IDF operations in Gaza, or the terrorist attacks of the last two months, Ross has repeatedly found a local population that needs a different kind of approach to treating trauma.
One client is Efrat Nave, a clinical social worker who runs Mercaz Maor, a government-funded healing center for treating those who have undergone sexual trauma, based in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi with branches in six different regional authorities.
“A person’s nervous system is affected by an incident and you don’t want to leave it there,” said Nave. “This is a very different language. It’s focused on the person and his nerves and strength and Gina were able to teach us how to access that.”
Ross has taught half of Nave’s caregivers in the first stages of the somatic experiencing process, and Nave sees it as a “gift” for her caregivers.
“You have to go into it slowly,” she said. “You need a little more time to understand this language. of the body. But I see that once they learn it, something happens that’s very powerful.”
Ross’s colleague in Israel is Cathy Lawi, a French-born somatic experiencing practitioner who spent the first half of her professional life in cancer research and biotechnology. The she read Peter Levine’s “Waking the Tiger,” which affected her in the same way it had affected Ross.
“I’m a scientist, I worked in research and development of major drugs, but I think you need hope to survive trauma,” said Lawi. “You need to leave the jargon you read about with trauma and find the healing.”
Lawi, like Ross, had also experienced her share of family trauma, having been born into a family of Holocaust survivors that left her with what she calls “transgenerational trauma in my DNA.”
After moving to Israel ten years ago, Lawi continued learning about somatic healing and met Ross in what she calls a “Ruth and Naomi moment” for her, referring to the instant and lasting connection forged between the Biblical Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi.
Lawi helped Ross develop the Israeli Trauma Center, where she is currently the executive director.
Over the last few years the pair have helped treat pre-and post-trauma victims in Israel’s southern town of Sderot who were affected by the near-constant rocket blasts from Gaza.
“They described to us how the tools were so helpful because they could use them right away,” said Lawi. “It was amazing to hear that because there’s so much pressure. People told us that kids can’t deal with anything that’s red, because of the red alert signal that comes on before a rocket. They don’t want to eat watermelon.”
Lawi also spoke of post-trauma experienced by nurses treating wounded soldiers, and injured soldiers she has treated in Tel Hashomer hospital.
“It’s harder and takes longer once they’re already in the hospital,” she said. “Our dream is to take care of them immediately, in the field, and give them the tools of first aid.”
Regaining a sense of balance
Ross conducted trauma release sessions around Israel over the course of the month of October, meeting with attack victims and groups of people trying to grapple with the spate of attacks, and what it means for life in Israel. For most people, she said, it’s about recovering their balance, day after day.
“Discharging our nervous system helps keep us in touch with our ethics and values, and for healing and peace — it helps stop the polarization,” she said. “Otherwise the other person becomes the enemy and that turns the trauma vortex inwards.”
She usually offers the following pieces of advice as part of her emotional first aid guide:
- It’s normal to be upset. What’s important to remember is that it will pass, and that the first step is to calm down. When we’re calm, it doesn’t change the danger but it does change our reaction to the danger.
- It’s okay to hear the news, but don’t listen to it all the time. Take it piece by piece, like taking small sips of water every hour. Listen to the news and then turn it off.
- Focus on how you manage your nervous system. If you think about an event and get upset, consider what happens in your body at the sensory level. Are there butterflies in your stomach and a lump in your throat?
- Take one sensation and focus on it. As you focus on that sensation, because you’re only allowing a small amount of activation, your nervous system will take the stress out with a deep, organic breath, a yawn, trembling or shaking. They’re all natural reactions to discharging the stress hormone.
- At that point, go on to the next sensation until you feel a bit calmer.
“If you fight against the emotions, they grip you much more,” said Ross.
She spoke of one client who said she saw the hatred in a terrorist’s eyes as he attacked someone.
“She couldn’t shake it off,” said Ross. So Ross had her remember the event and then physically shake it off. She then had her think of the eyes of people who love her, making that a resource that she could use in the future.
“You want to build healing from within the nervous system,” she said. “Because everyone is afraid, there are signals that we need to listen to. We’re going to have trouble for a while, so let’s prepare ourselves.”