BEIRUT: The persistent threat of car bombs might induce some to stay ensconced indoors, but psychology experts say going out despite the constant threat and even avoiding watching the news is key to leading a normal life under hostile circumstances.
According to Ketty Sarouphim, an associate professor of psychology at the Lebanese American University, the only way to avoid the detrimental psychological effects of Lebanon’s deteriorating security is by living life as routinely as possible.
“Try to have a routine. Routines make us feel safer and lower anxiety,” Sarouphim told The Daily Star. “Try to make plans ... don’t say ‘I can’t make plans because of the situation’ ... going to school, to work, to see friends, all of this should not be affected.”
Sarouphim added that scrapping plans to go out only gives rise to more feelings of frustration.
“If you allow yourself to stay in a state of panic, you will have a higher risk of developing a mental disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, fear and phobia,” she said.
On July 9, 2013, a car bomb ripped through Beirut’s southern suburb of Bir al-Abed, heralding the start of an unprecedented wave of explosions in Lebanon not seen since the Civil War. The frequency of explosions increased sharply after the new year, with three suicide bombings in January and five in February.
Most of the attacks have targeted the Beirut southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley town of Hermel, both associated with Hezbollah.
Most of the bombings were claimed by Syrian rebel groups who have vowed to carry on with attacks until Hezbollah withdraws from Syria, where it has been fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Rumors emerge almost every day about rigged cars entering Lebanese towns, along with news about stolen cars that could potentially be used in attacks across the country.
For Ahmad Oueini, an associate professor who teaches in both the psychology and education departments, individuals react differently to the threat of car bombs, and act accordingly to confront the psychological repercussions of the threat.
“It’s not possible to generalize because anxiety has to do with the way you appraise a situation relative to your own well-being, resources to cope, controllability and predictability of the threatening situation, which is very subjective,” he said. “Obviously, some people unreasonably assess a situation which causes them stress. Stress in turn leads to anxiety. In some cases, it can be crippling.”
“For example, a person living in [Beirut’s] southern suburbs may be very fatalistic, and strongly believe that God decides when is the time to go, so he goes about his life without worrying about the danger of car bombs. Maybe another person believes that if they avoid visiting or driving by certain places that are considered potential targets, they will have a sense of control over the situation,” Oueini explained.
He added that others might feel that nothing can protect them from a car bomb no matter what they do because these terrifying incidents can happen at any time, any day and any place.
“These people will probably feel more vulnerable, more stressed out, and hence more anxious,” he said.
Sarouphim said the constant threat of bomb attacks keeps people fixed on the need to ensure basic security, which prevents many from making higher achievements.
“There is a theory that says one of our basic needs is the need to be safe and secure, and unless we fulfill this need, we cannot go higher in the hierarchy of needs,” she said.
Other needs include the need to achieve, the need to love, to be loved and the need for self-esteem, Sarouphim added.
“It is very hard for students to study and think of making achievements when their basic need for safety and security is not met,” she explained. “When our very existence is threatened, how can we make plans for the future?”
Sarouphim said that in times of turmoil, parents tend to spoil their kids and be more permissive because they fear that they might lose them at any moment.
“Sociologically, in times of turmoil, people’s values are no longer as rigid, they tend to be loose,” the associate professor added.
Oueini said that one could address the problem of anxiety through what he called “problem-focused coping.”
“You can try to take precautions as much as you can – sandbag your business or apartment if you happen to live in places that are considered targets. Faith can help give a sense of security, and hope that the Lebanese government will come to its senses and do something drastic to stop this saga of terrorism. A more drastic solution would be to leave the country,” Oueini said.
“Yet other people can resort to emotion-focused coping, which means reducing the psychological effects of anxiety. They can avoid watching the news, do sports, yoga, listen to music, hang out with friends who might give them a sense of security and support,” he added.
For Sarouphim, the issue is “a daily struggle.”
“We should try to live a normal life and ... fight our own internal fears and the need to hide and never come out,” she says.