September 20, 2019

Gina Ross Talks About Healing From Trauma

People react as silence is observed as a tribute to victims during a memorial service in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

Gina Ross, a licensed therapist, is founder and president of the International Trauma-Healing Institute in the United States (ITI-US) and its Israeli branch (ITI-Israel). Born in Aleppo, Syria, Ross has lived in eight countries on four continents. A specialist in individual and collective trauma, she is the creator of The Ross Model: Protocol for Conflict Resolution and Successful Communication. Her latest book is “Breaking News! The Media and the Trauma Vortex: Understanding News Reporting, Journalists and Audiences.”

The following interview was conducted by email. 

Jewish Journal: Do you believe that most of us are experiencing some form of terrorism fatigue, and if so, how does this manifest itself in our responses to acts of terror?

Gina Ross: I would not call it fatigue. I would call it that our reactions may be informed by our unconscious fears and the actions that we think we would need to take, if we allowed our fears to be expressed. There may be in some people not a fatigue, but a giving up, a sense of powerlessness about their capacity to change the order of things. I have seen young people accept that the future of their country can end up in the hands of rogue countries, and somehow they have accepted that, “because there was no way to stop that.” There is a sort of numbing to the despair of powerlessness that people feel. 

JJ: How have you experienced such fatigue in your own work?

GR: I know well and have written a lot about compassion fatigue, of the people who are taking care of the traumatized. And they show the same signs of the traumatized, too much activation or numbness and depression.

In this case, again I would call it numbing, instead of fatigue. Fatigue implies I have it in me to care, but it is just too much. I need a rest. Numbing means hopelessness about any power to change things. This is why how we present things in the media is so crucial. 

JJ: Are there any upsides to feeling numb about terror?

GR: It is a way of protecting ourselves. Otherwise, we imagine that our nervous system will get fried. So, yes, in the short term, it is good and we can continue to function. The problem, however, is that in trauma, numbness can only be a temporary solution, because to go numb we have to shut down our system, including the parts that give us joy, hope, the capacity for awe and, more importantly, the capacity to find creative solutions for our dilemmas.

JJ: How do we display selectivity in what we highlight, especially social media?

GR: Again, it is a question of where our sympathies lie; what we are impressed by, what we value and our political leanings. If, for example, I despise the Christian right, or the African American community, or Muslims, the burning of their churches would not touch me. In some cases, if I really dislike these people, I may get some satisfaction from it. If I like history, art and the French culture, then the Notre Dame fire is a terrible loss. If I am afraid of the thought that there is a religious war going on, then I would not want to emphasize the Sri Lanka attack[s] by calling [them] Muslim attack[s] on Christians, in their house of worship, during one of their most important holidays. That is maybe why American political leaders distance themselves, by calling the victims “Easter worshippers,” and not Christians, as if they are some cultist small group that we can only somewhat relate to, and not part of the hundreds of thousands of Christians killed in the last decade.

“One thing you do not want to do is to imagine yourself in the situation of the victims. That is a sure way to traumatize [yourself]. The next thing to do is to allow [yourself] to feel the sorrow of the loss, and the tragedy of the hatred and miscommunication that lead to it.”

JJ: How can we become more effective and compassionate in terms of reacting to terror?

GR: This is a tough one. One thing you do not want to do is to imagine yourself in the situation of the victims. That is a sure way to traumatize [yourself]. The next thing to do is to allow [yourself] to feel the sorrow of the loss, the tragedy that hit so many people’s lives, and the tragedy of the hatred and miscommunication that lead to it. The next thing is to open our heart to understanding what is going on in the world, what is motivating people, without the hatred; recognizing the role of polarization. Polarization actually kills. And each one of us can add to it or subtract from it. For example, separate the people who are nationalists from those who are white supremacists. 

Look for the truth. People with good intentions are hiding it. For example, engage the normal nonviolent Muslims, give them a voice, support them, do not amalgamate by fearing that all Muslims are potential jihadists, and call out the violent Islamists by their names. Call out their leaders and their imams and their teachings —the same for any extremist groups of any race or religion.

I was delighted when an amazing woman running a climate change organization wanted to include my tools for stress and trauma release and deactivation of polarization to all people dealing with this issue. She totally understood the blinders under which we operate on any and every issue.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.