December 2, 2023
December 2, 2023

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The Breakdown of Barriers: The Protective, The Divisive and the Redemptive

The breach of the protective fence that stood between Gaza and Israel on October 7 was the breakdown of more than just the seemingly fortified security fence. As the weeks pass since that brutally difficult day, the protective barriers that have allowed each of us Jews to live with the illusion of personal and communal safety have also been breached. While the fence that separated Gaza from Israel was a physical fence, one that could be seen and touched and unfortunately broken, the barrier that protected each of us was a barrier in our minds; one built of faith in God, our governments, our families and a feeling of invulnerability that is based on a long track record of blissful peace in our hometowns. This mental barrier allowed us to not think twice about walking around the mall with our sons proudly wearing their kippahs. It allowed us to feel that antisemitism exists in the world, but not in our hometowns. It allowed us to feel that our children could travel freely throughout Israel just as many of us did until October 6, 2023.

While we all suffer from grief and shock over the murdered and kidnapped, and we worry for the safety of our heroic soldiers, we are also adjusting to the realization that the psychological protective barrier around each of us has been breached. How do we deal with these broken barriers?

When it comes to the incursion of terrorists across Israel’s border the answer was clear. Tzahal mobilized, and our unbelievably brave and devoted chayalim went from celebratory to battle-ready. Tzahal is engaging in a passionate fight to secure our borders once again and to bring the hostages back home. Although the answer was clear, it is anything but simple. This is a battle that has young men and women encountering sights that we wish they would never have to see, feeling fear that most individuals of their age will never have to feel, and tragically confronting mortality at way too young of an age. All of this in order to firmly and forcefully put that protective barrier back in place: the barrier that keeps ruthless terrorists from wreaking havoc on our sacred land.

Coping with the breach of the protective barriers in our minds requires a different approach. While a victory by Tzahal and the eradication of Hamas will certainly help us to feel safe again, the shattered feeling of safety that has ensued from antisemitic sentiments around us will necessitate further interventions. What can we do to function in our day-to-day lives while feeling that our protective bubble has been burst? There are several psychological approaches that can be helpful. Just as each of us reacts in our own way to stressors, so too each of us can determine which coping strategy will be most appealing and effective.

Grounding techniques—When we feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us, the world is upside down, and we don’t know if we are coming or going (all descriptions that I have heard people use lately), grounding techniques can help. Grounding techniques help to focus on the present moment, rather than the past and the future. In the current situation it is normal and common to feel sadness about the recent past and to experience anxiety about the future. When this becomes overwhelming, or we simply need to be effective in our daily routines, grounding in the present can be very reassuring. One common technique is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. This method engages your senses to draw you back to the present moment. In this method you list five non-distressing things you hear, four non-distressing things you see, three non-distressing things you can touch, two non-distressing things you can smell and one pleasant thing you can taste.

In addition, deep breathing can help with grounding and anxiety reduction. With one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen, inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for seven and exhale fully for eight. As you exhale, make a whooshing sound as if you are blowing out candles. Repeat this for four cycles. In addition, deep breathing operates by serving as a distraction and by calming your sympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that is activated in an emergency).

Cognitive restructuring, a popular technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy, helps individuals to identify unhelpful thoughts, challenge these thoughts and then replace them with alternative balanced thoughts. For example if you find yourself thinking “I will never feel safe again,” you can challenge this thought in several ways. First, notice the word “never” and label it as an extreme. Extreme words often signify all-or-nothing thinking, a cognitive distortion in which things are viewed as either black or white, with little room for gray. This way of thinking can lead to feelings of fear and hopelessness. After noting the extreme nature of the word “never” you can consider whether there are circumstances in which you do feel safe, such as in your home, in your workplace or in places with added security measures. Perhaps “never” is not accurate.

Another cognitive restructuring technique is to think of the best, worst and most realistic scenarios. In this example, the worst-case scenario is that you truly would never feel safe again. The best-case scenario is that your sense of safety will be completely restored. The most realistic scenario is that it will take some time to feel safe again, and that there may be things that you need to do to help yourself feel safe. It is natural to feel a spike in vulnerability after a breach in safety, but in most people the feeling of vulnerability decreases as time passes. The alternative thought that can result from this process of cognitive restructuring can be something like, “It may take some time, but I will likely feel safer as time goes by.” This thought is likely to reduce the fear and hopelessness that result from “I will never feel safe again.”

Be active rather than passive. This allows us to shift from a victim stance to a position of resilient survivor. In addition, activity that is meaningful and routine is shown to reduce depressed feelings. So while we are all drawn in by news reports and spend too much time scrolling through social media, complementing that with any action that is doable and meaningful will likely make you feel better. For some, taking an active stance is easy and natural. We see hundreds of initiatives being started by individuals in this category. For others, taking an active stance is more challenging, whether it be due to feeling stuck in sadness or anxiety or simply having more passive tendencies. For this group, choosing any one attainable action is so valuable. It doesn’t have to be “an initiative” or “a movement,” Checking in on friends, emailing government officials or even hanging up some photos of your family enjoying time in Israel are examples.

While the breakdown of the Gaza fence barrier and our psychological safety barrier have caused so much pain, there is a barrier breakdown that in a beautifully ironic manner has brought us comfort. We have all gained strength from the barriers that have been broken down between the previously divided groups in Am Yisrael. We have all heard stories of chilonim and datim uniting both in Israel and abroad. The unity in Am Yisrael is powerful and unprecedented in recent years. This unity has been accomplished by letting go of the grudges, differences and bitterness that have been the bricks of our dividing walls.

So while we mourn the breach of the Gaza barrier and attempt to cope with our own protective barriers being compromised, perhaps we can see hope in the breakdown of the walls that have divided us as a nation. With these divisive walls being broken down, we will have the unity, the strength and the siyata d’shmaya to rebuild the walls we all yearn for—the redemptive walls of a rebuilt Yerushalayin that will provide us with the ultimate safety. In the prophetic and beseeching words of Dovid HaMelech, “הֵיטִ֣יבָה בִ֭רְצוֹנְךָ אֶת־צִיּ֑וֹן תִּ֝בְנֶ֗ה חוֹמ֥וֹת יְרוּשָׁלָֽ͏ִם׃ “—May it please You (Hashem) to make Zion prosper; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Tehillim 51:20).

Jessica Kornwasser, Psy.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Englewood.

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