In our international projects, our healing work for torture and war trauma survivors is conducted through group counseling. Groups typically meet for ten weeks. This is the third in a series of posts by Veronica Laveta as she follows the counseling group cycle in Jordan. Veronica Laveta is CVT’s clinical advisor for the Jordan project.
Read the previous entry or the next entry in this series.
Session 3: Mind Body Awareness
In this session, we are building on the concepts and skills from session two and reinforcing the connection between the mind and the body. With trauma, we often lose touch of our bodies. Our breathing and body movements contract, which reduces our ability to cope. With a focused attention breathing exercise, we are helping survivors learn how to calm their thoughts and emotions by paying attention to their breathing. The body map exercise deepens survivors’ awareness of where trauma “lives” in the body and how to use coping strategies and strengths to help counteract the physical and emotional pain. (See body map with notes on where trauma can appear in the body.)
In many of the groups this week, survivors came in feeling despondent from the news that United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is freezing resettlement interviews and cutting food vouchers. This distress presented a significant challenge for the facilitators: How do they both validate the fear and discouragement as survivors struggle to meet their basic needs, yet not let despair take over the group? These overwhelming difficulties provoked our own emotions and questions about whether we are doing enough in the face of such dire need and circumstances.
Yet, in all my years in working with trauma, it never ceases to amaze me how simple exercises in a safe, supportive environment can pave the way for clearer thinking and problem solving. After practicing some of the mind-body exercises, the comments of the survivors helped lift us all up again. One survivor said, “When I focused on my exhale, I felt my worries coming out and I felt lighter.” Another shared “This exercise is reminding us that we are still human.”
Reem, one of the facilitators, did not let the initial despair of the group bring her down. She intentionally provided all the group members with genuine care and kindness, reflecting the strength and dignity that she saw in each of them. I could see the group members light up in response. Justin, the psychotherapist trainer supervising the group, noted the power of the group support, “There was such a general sense of hopelessness and desperation in the beginning, with people feeling that nothing will help. But then one woman said, ‘I feel strength when we come here.’ I was amazed at how dramatically the mood changed in one session.”
I attended a few men’s groups where there were similar themes of discouragement. Many men acknowledged that the pain and stress of the torture and war had changed them negatively. They sometimes let their aggression out on their families and felt deep regret afterwards. One man said, “I don’t want my family to be frightened by me.”
Here again, despite the overwhelming challenges, we saw positive change. One group member last session was full of anger and negativity but this session was smiling, open and supportive of other members. The facilitators asked about the change. He told of a big fight he had with his wife. He was furious and wanted to hurt her. But then he remembered to try the grounding exercise and took a chair outside to do it. (The grounding exercise helps survivors feel more stable in their bodies, returns them to the present moment and allows them to feel the support of the ground and chair.) When he returned inside, he was much calmer. His wife was amazed and said, “What is this, magic?” She was astonished at how much he was transformed. He was so excited that he taught his wife and friends the technique.
In the previous sessions, one man I observed was quiet and withdrawn. He was self-conscious about speaking because he had lost his teeth during the torture, and he was devastated by the loss of his three children who were killed in the war. During this session, the group broke into pairs to share their body maps. This activity allowed him to find his voice. He was able to feel safe enough to tell some of his story to another survivor. When they returned to the big group, he was active in the discussion for the first time. His body language had changed. He leaned forward and spoke with confidence. The other men showed deep compassion towards him and many remarked that they gained strength from hearing his experiences. One survivor said, “Our stories are nothing compared to his. If he can survive and move forward, so can we.”
Throughout the week, we saw survivors giving examples of how they are making changes to break the cycle of unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviors. One survivor consciously focused on small positive events, such as giving support to a friend or hearing good news about his children, which give him strength. Another reflected on how his physiotherapy exercises were helping his low back pain and this encouraged him. One man had been distressed about how much he had been taking his anger out on his wife since his torture. He was determined to break this cycle of anger and aggression. He said, “I played card games with my wife rather than hurting her.” He feels much closer to her now, and better about himself. A martial arts champion who had given up competing due to the trauma from the war has started to compete again, and the group celebrated this with him.
We are always making this journey together. Survivors bring in what seem to be insurmountable challenges and unfathomable pain and as helpers, we struggle to not descend into feelings of hopelessness. Just as we work with our clients, we also have to work with our own thoughts and feelings to consciously draw out hope and possibility. In one debriefing, counselor Lina helped us all to maintain hope as she described the change she had seen in one of the group members from intake to the third session. “When I first met him, he was unshaven, poorly dressed, and had a strong smell from not washing. He had made three suicide attempts recently. He could not focus and was not functioning well at all. He now has a new haircut, is clean and well dressed, pays attention in session and supports others. And some of his ‘cheeky’ personality has returned.” Thank you, Lina.