Features: August 4th, 2017

With the constant threat of terrorism and news stories highlighting death, people may feel fearful when going about their business. Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson offers advice about how to deal with our own fears and help others deal with theirs.

To help understand our own reactions, and what leads others to kill, I will refer to a play that is set 100 years ago.

Journey’s end by RC Sheriff

The play is set in a British trench towards the end of the First World War. The theme provides an exploration of how war changes men (and women) and how humans respond to the constant threat of death.

The story unfolds as a junior officer, who hero-worshipped the captain when they were at school together, has signed up to the regiment. This is disturbing to the captain who knows that he is a changed man, not worthy of that admiration and unable to live up to expectations – because he has turned to alcohol in order to cope, which he knows is wrong. This gives him an underlying sense of guilt and cowardice. He has an inner conflict because he has a keen sense of duty but also an addiction. Instead of looking at his own problem, he openly criticises a colleague who he considers is feigning illness in order to avoid going over the top.

The young second lieutenant is naive and has built up an idealised view of the captain and of war. His way of coping with danger was by seeing the captain as a fine leader who may save him. But this was unrealistic.

Idealising others often occurs of significant others who are not actually present all the time. It is inevitable, in the eyes of the beholder, that they fall off that pedestal when the whole person is better known.

The story continues with an assault, which incurs heavy causalities. The captain, rather than counting the huge losses of life in his company, holds on to his overall purpose towards victory, which was to capture an enemy soldier to extract information. The young lieutenant finds this disgustingly callous as it demonstrates how the Captain has numbed out his compassion.

There is a ceasefire, followed by a resumption of hostilities – this results in heavy losses on both sides. Reconciliation happens only after the heroic younger man, having fought again, is brought in dying of his wounds. The captain, whilst arguably less brave, yet more conditioned to war, as well as somewhat protected by his status and role, walks away unharmed.

Thus, the psychological defences are exposed and a salient issue that still faces society is highlighted in how individuals, in order to cope, may need to disconnect from their feelings and fears of death. But then they risk loosing their humanity and value system.

The characters in the trench coped in varied ways: for example one of them denied taking his leave entitlement to appease his guilt for having feigned illness.

The psychological need to numb oneself from emotional pain through addiction is also common, rather than learning how to tolerate the mess of life and to be mindful of all the beautiful moments in life.

Dealing with current fears

In peacetime, we can do this by mindfully observing through each of our senses rather than just through our eyes. On the street, we can be more observant instead of blocking out our ears and eyes by using our phone or listening through headphones.

We can relieve anxiety by knowing how to breathe mindfully, to be creative through culture and music, through the sensations of touch, smell, sound, sight and taste.

When someone takes on the terrifying ideology of a terrorist organisation, we may wonder if they were terrorised into becoming a terrorist before they began terrorising others?

To help understand this, we can look to cognitive analytic therapy, where we explain how people relate, as if on a see saw. When one person is in control of the weight at bottom end, the other person is suspended up high and has no control. By taking turns, each has the feeling of being at the controlling end and then also of feeling controlled. But the seesaw is too polarised and nasty things can happen. The solution only appears when one takes the middle position – like a good negotiator would.

We call this concept a reciprocal role. This idea applies to every human interaction: if one person is loving, the other feels loved. If someone is rejecting, the other person feels rejected. If someone is behaving in an attacking way, someone feels attacked.

Might a terrorist recruit feel terrorised by those they look up to, and if so are they themselves vulnerable to oppression or mentally unstable with depression or anxiety? Do they feel they must obey? Does this mean that they cannot think for themselves anymore?

My work with mentally disordered offenders who have killed, demonstrates how instinctual, mindless impulses result in high- risk behaviours. These become observable in body language and symbolic gestures, which can be explained and understood.

For example, if someone feels excluded – then we can often see this as a pattern that has gone on throughout their lifetime and it can start to be addressed in a cognitive analytic approach by including them instead.

Resolving conflict

If an individual is not able to talk about their experiences and losses for fear of shame or flashbacks, then there is an inability to mourn. In effect, the individual is unable to feel the grief. The Captain in Journey’s End was defending himself against the pain of the loss of his men, the only resource he had was alcohol. Just as described in a Pink Floyd song, he became ‘comfortably numb’.

The men who came back from the first world war could not talk about the horrors that they witnessed, instead with a return to civilian life, as portrayed so vividly in the TV series ‘Peaky Blinders’, they maintained their own ways of being loyal to each other. After going through so much conflict and trauma, they turned to what was familiar through different forms of risk-laden responses: Bare knuckle-fighting, thrills through gambling and drinking. And, to numb out the flashbacks and nightmares they smoked opium.

So, we see that there is an emotional trauma that is endured when killing, which can lead to the loss of mental health, with subsequent diminished responsibility.

That lack of responsibility for one’s own actions cannot always be explained through mental illness. Nor is it faced if a terrorist commits martyrdom, for which he prepares himself psychologically as it is a pre-meditated act. If the perpetrator lives he has committed the offence of murder and is incarcerated in prison.

Perhaps the world will become a better place as our increased knowledge of the human brain continue to inform treatment developments, which can include non-medical and creative resources that diminish aggression and promote mutual understanding. In this way people may tolerate their differences without judging others for their ways of living.

Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson is a London-based Health and Care Profession council registered music therapist, accredited supervisor, professional oboist and lecturer, UK Council for Psychotherapy registered Cognitive Analytic Therapist and Supervisor. She is author of The Clinician’s Guide to Forensic Music Therapy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), and has her own private practice and twenty years’ experience in the National Health Service as a Clinician, Head of Arts Therapies and Clinical Research Lead her research was awarded the 2016 Ruskin Medal for the most impactful doctoral research.

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