Panic attacks

The room is silent. The Arabic men look at me in anticipation. I am the only woman in the room. Trying to think of the correct words and using our hand and feet we managed to cover some generalities – they already had a laugh trying to pronounce my name, we established that everyone is doing alright today and that it’s raining outside. Now we are just waiting for the translator to progress the conversation beyond the pleasantries.

Today I am presenting together with the coordinator of the psycho-social team of the Boat Refugee Foundation, about panic attacks. Now that I am sitting here I am acutely aware of being young, female and surrounded by stern looking, bearded man and tasked with presenting to them about one of the most common psychological problems in the refugee camps.

Slowly the topic elicits the first careful reactions from the men. A thin looking man, with his head bowed down quietly talks about the breathing problems he sometimes experiences, the haunted sensation of being chased on the streets and the episodes of feeling he’s choking. These feelings started to occur after the Taliban attacked his village and murdered members of his family.
Another man helplessness asks how he could best support his wife who can’t tolerate anyone around her when she thinks she’s having a heart attack.

We discuss a couple of techniques that can help during a panic attack or when you see someone else having a panic attack.
Then a man with a red hat, the bravest of the group, carefully starts to speak. He’s grateful for the information we have provided him but is this whole presentation not geared towards people that have a house? A place where they can feel safe and maintain their digntiy? A place where they can wear normal, clean clothes? A place where they can live and not just survive? Is the solution not just to take these men out of this inhumane situation, would that not remove all the problems that we are discussing now? He removes his red hat and I see big bold spots on his head from incessant scratching.

His comments are followed by silence. I can feel the sadness and anger thickening the air in the room. We move on trying to find ways to apply the techniques we discussed to the daily reality of the camp. We can’t change the overall situation but perhaps we can find effective ways of dealing with it. We close off the presentation with an relaxation exercise. During the exercise I peep through my eyelashes to observe that above the beards there are twenty faces with closed eyelids and deep frowns, deeply concentrating on the breathing exercise. We told them that breathing exercises can help during a panic attack but can also be used as a general method to relax the mind and body. Especially when being surrounded by the constant tensions that linger in the camp.

It’s remarkable to see how interested the men are in ways to deal with the situation in the camp and to hear them ask so many questions (how often, how long, where?). I can see that it ignites a spark of hope that maybe it’s within their power to deal with the daily pressures they have to face. It seems to reassure them to know that they’re not the only one facing psychological problems, that this doesn’t make them ‘weird’ or ‘weak’ and that discussing this in a group helps.

The next day, when I walk through Kara Tepe, a man walks up to me. I recognize the red hat and he tells me how he practiced the breathing exercise this morning. There’s a twinkle in his eyes and he promises that he’ll do it again the next morning. I truly hope that they will continue employing these techniques and that it can offer some relief. Hopefully this can be the stepping stone for the foundation to open the conversation to other, frequently occurring psychological problems. There’s no doubt that that is much needed.

Text: Cathelijn Tjaden
Photo: Henk van Lambalgen