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Home > Research Articles > Anxiety Over Possible Attacks Damaging People Worldwide

Inter Press Service (IPS/IMS)

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Inter Press Service (IPS/IMS)

"Fear and anxiety are the most obvious emotions that people are experiencing, and that cuts across both countries (the United States and Iraq),'' says Naomi Marmorstein, an assistant professor in the psychology department at Rutgers University in the state of New Jersey and an expert in clinical psychology and depressive disorders.

"People who have been through a war already will be the most affected - people for whom war is not an abstraction,'' adds her colleague Nancy McWilliams, an expert in psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, grief, trauma and dissociation at Rutgers.

''They will use whatever coping mechanism they already had. Especially at risk are people who have a history of post-traumatic stress - veterans and relatives of Sep. 11 victims, or civilians who have experienced bombing campaigns. Children are especially affected because they have such a vivid imagination."

In fact, the report of a recent fact-finding mission to Iraq by the International Study Team concluded, ''With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed ... many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.''

Children in Israel and Palestine have been living with similar fears for many years, and some may already be scarred for life, says Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, co-director of the Givat Haviva Jewish-Arab Center for Peace in Israel's Sharon Valley.

''It is obvious that children and young people are severely affected by these conditions. From research in other societies in conflict we know that the effects are long-term. They cause anxiety, fear, psychological problems, learning disabilities and violent behaviour,'' she says.

Adults react to impending violence in different ways.

In Iraq, the incidence of stress-related illnesses has increased noticeably during the recent seesaw international battle over military action, the Red Cross says.

"Many times now, the people here have expected an attack to start. It leads to more and more tension, cases of high blood pressure and anxiety," says Roland Huguenin, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad.

Huguenin has no statistics of the people affected, but he says he keeps encountering signs of the constant tension weighing down on people, although Iraqis typically put a brave face on things. "We have lived under the threat of war for so long" is a typical response, or, "we are used to it by now". In Baghdad, life goes on apparently undisturbed even at times of the gravest threats.

Most people say they have taken precautions like stocking up on bottled water and food, digging wells and storing fuel for heaters or generators, but they also seem almost fatalistic about what happens. The overwhelming majority seem expect war, and see new developments at the United Nations as delay, not reprieve.

"It is like watching a film or reading a novel and never getting to the climax of the story," says an Iraq woman.

"There is nothing we can do about it," a Baghdad resident says. They cannot stop Saddam, they cannot stop Bush.''

Some U.S. citizens expecting another massive terrorist attack display the same attitude, says one expert. " What I see is people under-reacting. There have been so many alerts and so many warnings. People are just waiting for the other shoe to drop,'' says Russell J. Kormann, associate director of Rutgers' post-traumatic stress disorders programme.

''Most people feel like they have very little control over everything. That's one reason why so many Americans ran out to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting (when a recent terrorism alert was issued - plastic was suggested as a way to block biological or chemical weapons). It was something they could do other than sitting around and waiting for the next horrible tragedy to take place.''

Marmorstein suggests that people fight the fear by trying to take control of their lives, for instance engaging in protests or letter-writing campaigns or actions to support U.S. troops.

''There's a great deal of division in this country about the war, and many people feel like they have no power to influence our foreign policy. Here in the U.S. there's anger at our own government for going to war, and I can imagine that in Iraq, there's a lot of anger for not disarming."

In Israel, says Ozacky-Lazar, people have access to many more mental health resources than do Palestinians. Still, treating the mental wounds of conflict is a daunting prospect, she adds. ''These are not easy problems to deal with ... it needs many years and high expertise to be able to cope with such a national and personal trauma.''

But not healing the scars, especially of children, will have a cost, she predicts. ''I am afraid that we are raising a generation of frightened and disturbed kids who will grow up to be violent parents and citizens, who won't trust the other side and will continue blaming them for their troubles. By this, the conflict will strengthen and would not be solved. There must be an urgent effort to save this generation.''

Copyright 2003. Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.