According to Prof. Geoff Beattie of Edge Hill University in the UK, a hostage situation can have profound psychological effects on people for many years. The psychological impact varies depending on the duration of captivity, the conditions endured, personal resilience and coping mechanisms
By Geoff Beatty, Professor of Psychology, Edge Hill University
What the Israeli abductees had to go through is unimaginable. The trauma of that barbaric and unexpected attack by Hamas, murder of loved ones, then violent kidnapping and dragging into tunnels deep underground in Gaza. We live in a society where we often talk about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but it's rare that the outcomes are this bad.
The writer from Northern Ireland, Brian Keenan, wrote the book "Evil Embrace" about his experience of being held hostage by members of Shiite militias in the XNUMXs in Beirut. He was held for more than four years in filthy rooms that were often smaller than a bathroom.
His initial response was a refusal to trivialize or minimize the event and its possible consequences, but this approach was soon extinguished. The reality of his situation hit him, leading to depression and frustration.
In order to survive, he says "a person must learn to detach himself from the past in order to live for the present". He developed strategies to ease his depression, including imagining jokes that his friends in Belfast would tell him when he returned. To distract himself from the reality of his beatings and listening to the tortures and executions of others, he focused on rewriting old movies in his head, or creating imaginary images.
Research into the psychological response of hostages in the 2002 Moscow theater siege by Chechen terrorists identified six stages of adaptation: panic, disbelief (many initially thought it was part of the show), hypervigilance, resistance-compliance , depression and finally gradual acceptance.
Abductees soon lost all sense of time. They felt helpless and indifferent and said it looked "like a movie". Some suffered from Stockholm syndrome.
This occurs when abductees develop dependent relationships with their captors as a result of an unconscious emotional response to the traumatic situation, where death seems as likely to come as a result of the actions of those outside of trying to rescue them as of the captors themselves.
The hostage situation can have profound psychological effects on people for many years. The psychological impact varies depending on the duration of captivity, the conditions endured, personal resilience and coping mechanisms.
Brian Keenan was more durable than most people, but still came very close to the edge. The Israeli hostages vary greatly in age, another important factor. Children held as hostages have not developed the necessary coping strategies, and may not fully understand what is happening, if at all.
There are some common psychological effects associated with being held hostage, such as PTSD, which is characterized by intrusive memories or flashbacks, nightmares, extreme anxiety, persistent feelings of fear or helplessness. One Dutch study found that a third of former abductees still suffered from PTSD nine years after the event.
Memories that never go away
Traumatic events of this type are associated with what psychologists call "flash" memories that do not disappear like normal memories over time. All the information related to the event is stored in the brain.
Psychologists suggest that these processes have been shaped by our evolutionary past. The events are so traumatic that we must avoid the situation at all costs in the future, which is why the brain remembers them so well.
Abductees are also likely to experience high levels of anxiety and depression as a result of the trauma. Feelings of sadness, despair and anhedonia - the loss of pleasure in activities that were previously enjoyable - is common.
Anger and rage about how this event was made possible by the intelligence failure of the Israeli government is another major factor. Being held hostage can significantly impair your ability as a person to trust others. They may feel betrayed by their government's failure to protect them, and find it hard to trust others. They may struggle to regain a sense of personal control in their day-to-day lives.
Abductees may also remain in a constant state of hypervigilance, always alert to potential threats. This increased state of alertness can cause difficulties in relaxation, concentration and sleep.
Those released early are also likely to experience survivor's guilt, when others are still in captivity, as well as survivor's guilt associated with their survival while so many others perished. They may deal with feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame for years.
After release, abductees will need extensive psychological support to help them cope with the trauma. Usually this will involve a combination of individual therapy, group therapy and special interventions.
Techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement reprocessing and desensitization (EMDR) can be used to treat the symptoms of PTSD, which can alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories or experiences.
The person focuses on the traumatic memory while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation, following the movements of the therapist's fingers with their eyes. It has been shown to be beneficial, reducing the vividness of the traumatic memory and moderating the emotional response.
Abductees will also need a safe and empathetic environment where they can express their feelings about what happened. Emotional disclosure in which victims build a narrative of their experience while combining their understanding of the events with their emotional reactions, is necessary for both physical and mental health.
This can be achieved through individual counseling sessions or support groups with other survivors who have had similar experiences. Raising awareness among victims of the common reactions and symptoms associated with trauma can also help, by helping to normalize their psychological reactions and reducing their sense of isolation.
We must remember that the specific psychological support required after release from a hostage situation varies from person to person. Therefore, a comprehensive assessment by mental health professionals is essential to determine the most appropriate and effective interventions for each victim. But, in the case of the Israeli hostages, it is important to recognize the strength of the long-term effects on most of them.
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