Our Brains on Conflict: Trauma, Healing, and the Politics of Fear: An Interview with Mike Niconchuk
In this interview, Michael “Mike” Niconchuk reflects on some of the intimate lessons he has learned on healing and coping from refugees he has developed friendships with over the last five years working in post-conflict and displaced communities in Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. He has a particular focus on young people at risk of violence and conflict with the law. For three years, after the start of the conflict in Syria, Mike worked as an Emergency Response Coordinator in Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan, leading various projects for violence reduction, youth leadership, and alternative education. Since then, Mike has worked with refugees across various stages of their migration journey—from Greece, to Germany, to Canada, and the United States—conducting research on the links between forced displacement, stress, social cognition, and social behavior.
He also shares insights he has gained from his empirical social cognition and neuroendocrinology research into the biological impacts of subjective belonging and violent extremism, while studying as a recent US-UK Fulbright scholar at University College London.
Mike continues to pursue innovative research that combines methods from neuroscience, peace building, and conflict reduction. Currently, he works as a consultant for various organizations in the US, Europe, and the Middle East, using a behavioral science lens to design and evaluate programs for violence prevention and psychosocial wellbeing. In 2016, Mike was named an Innovation Fellow at Beyond Conflict, where he continues to develop his research on the psychology and neurobiology of displacement, violence, and marginalization.
I recently accompanied Mike, an alumnus of our Institute, to the Island of Lesvos, Greece, to participate in a Tällberg Foundation workshop on the underlying cause and potential long-term consequences of Europe’s refugee crisis, “Clash of Civilizations?”
—Sherman Teichman for EuropeNow
EuropeNow In your opinion, what is the global challenge in front of us in terms of migration, trauma, and healing?
Mike Niconchuk Millions of people have fled to Europe in the past three years. By boat and by foot, the means people have used to get to “somewhere better” have pushed to the boundaries of empathetic imagination and moral consciousness, leaving us in a place of fatigue, cognitive dissonance, and political polarization.
Beyond basic needs and economic integration, there is an imperative of healing that accompanies the refugee crisis,
Whether in Canada, Europe, or the Middle East, from my experience, resilience outshines trauma, and that deserves attention. Much of mental health—in our rhetoric, policy, and prescriptions—is approached from a deficit model as opposed to an asset model. We focus on what is wrong with the person after conflict, without reveling in how much remains intact. While it is imperative to continue to innovate in the clinical space, I continue to learn so much about healing and coping from communities still living what many would blanket label as “trauma.”
For me, the challenge has two major components. First, how do we best work with communities to understand their own healing and resilience, as much as we try to understand their suffering? And second, how can we best unravel and conquer the growing politics and fear and polarization that has done so much damage to otherwise beautiful chances for mutual healing and coexistence?
EuropeNow What are you trying to do?
Mike Niconchuk I’m trying to work with people during and after conflict, and restore their minds to pride and joy despite having lived through these horrible circumstances.
Brain sciences offer a fantastic lens for unpacking individual and group-level drivers of conflict. Beyond clinical psychology, which has formed the bedrock of trauma healing and mental health care, neuroscience and social cognitive science provide additional ways of looking at how we think, above and beyond the political or behavioral summations of what we think.
Just as there are certain commonalities in the narratives and impacts of conflict on communities in various geographies, brain science affords a unique luxury of stripping bare something we all share—brains—and cautiously interrogates it to better understand how we create conflict, how we experience conflict, and how we change because of it. These three questions are key to designing better programs for resilience, recovery, and healing. By understanding what conflict, migration, and trauma do to us at cellular, chemical, and cognitive levels, we can work together to strengthen the “better angels of our nature.”
EuropeNow What brought you to this intersection of brain science, migration, and program design?
Mike Niconchuk My mother lived through one of the most notorious wars in the Western Hemisphere, in Guatemala. As a child, being part of a family formed by war never meant much to me. It was not until I started my undergraduate education in International Relations at Tufts that I began to ask bigger, deeper questions about what it means to live through war, leave your home, and start over. At the time, it still barely dawned on me that my own mother lived through a conflict, considering she barely talked about it at home. Now, I’m not surprised she never talked about it.
My family’s story is not rare, and I take pride in a blurred line between academic pursuit and self-awareness. The U.S., a land of immigrants, if an amnesic one, is rich with stories and lessons about migration, trauma, and healing. Wars in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, or the Far East pushed millions of people to pursue futures in the “Land of Opportunity,” either by force or by choice. In 1950 alone, the United States accepted nearly 250,000 immigrants, though of course not all of these were victims of forced displacement. My mother moved to the U.S. because she fell in love, not because she was forced to flee, but that does not diminish her experience of war, or the legacy it left in her, and her family’s, minds. Her story has grounded me with a solid understanding that “refugees,” in the legal sense, are hardly the only ones whose minds, hearts, and trajectories, are profoundly affected by conflict. That is not to diminish our media, philanthropic, or practical focus on refugees, but to remind that war is bigger, and its tendrils exceed our most liberal categorizations of victims.
The questions I had about trauma, memory, and its extended impacts only grew over three years in Jordan, while working in Za’atri Refugee Camp. On the periphery of the world’s most talked-about humanitarian crises, the youth I worked with were spinning quickly in a revolving door of conflict and vulnerability. Some still could never fathom picking up a weapon. Others had fought in the early days of the conflict. Others had been imprisoned, abused, threatened. Others were contemplating return to any number of rebel groups who were doing the “right thing,” in their minds.
I continue to explore the biological and neural correlates of violence, trauma, and recovery, as well as the myriad social cognitive issues such as values, stereotypes, forgiveness, belonging, fear, and stress that spin in that revolving door of conflict, between victimization and perpetration.
EuropeNow Is healing possible?
Mike Niconchuk For Mahmoud, a twenty nine-year-old refugee from Damascus, all he wants is to be able to cope with each day, to find some way to make meaning in a numbing routine of restricted movement, isolation, and risk. For others, healing means shedding the intrusive thoughts that creep in their minds, which poke them like a hot iron and force them to recall images they have tried to forget.
Refugees move, but their experiences, their thoughts, and traumatic memories move with them. Not all victims of conflicts and not all people who live through violence are traumatized, and the mandate of healing after crises is not confined to those whose symptomology qualifies as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Indeed, the question of healing is bigger than PTSD, and is bigger than the refugee crisis. While this may seem controversial to those outside of the mental health sector, there is an important distinction that we must make between trauma, trauma-induced disorders, and other consequences of exposure to violence. The word trauma or traumatized can be used carelessly by media and by practitioners outside of, and to some extent within, the mental health sector. Particularly when it comes to refugees, the label “traumatized” predictably accompanies too many headlines about those fleeing conflict zones. In American politics today, there is much talk of “healing divisions” while divisions seem to be multiplying each day. One of the founding fathers of trauma healing—Bessel Van Der Kolk—highlights some of the cross-causal commonalities of stress on the individual, suggesting that the “human response to overwhelming and uncontrollable life events is remarkably consistent” across different types of events—childhood abuse, natural disasters, or living in a concentration camp.
Without doubt, war affects the minds and memories of all survivors, but traumatized implies a pathology that must be separated from other psychological and social impacts of war, if we are to work meaningfully, and honestly with refugees, internally displaced persons, and other survivors of conflict.
In my own work, I look at the idea of “healing” through an asset-based and biological framework. To phrase it as a question, I ask how do non-medical resources like social belonging, agency, and economic integration affect biological and psychological resilience of those who have lived through war? We know, for example, that social isolation and exclusion affect physical health and wellbeing, and result in acute changes in stress hormone levels. Perhaps the opposite is true, that refugee communities who enter into societies (in neighboring counties, or in Europe, or in Canada) that facilitate a greater sense of belonging and social mobility have demonstrable positive changes in stress hormone responses, fear-reactivity, and pro-social behavior.
My own questions in no way challenge or disagree with advances in clinical treatment of PTSD and other disorders. It is, however, a different lens through which to ask the same question of how we restore normalcy—biologically, socially, and emotionally—after suffering. So, overall, yes, healing is possible, and we have just begun to scratch the surface of understanding how humans heal after conflict, just as we have only begun to scratch the surface in our understanding of the extent to which violence is a deeply embodied experience.
EuropeNow So, what exactly is required of humanity, in Europe and elsewhere, to increase the possibility and space for healing?
Mike Niconchuk There are practical steps that need to be taken in the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) sector—increased funding, training, advocacy—to increase and expand opportunities for healing at a clinical level. The mental health and wellbeing of refugees is critical to their social, economic, and cultural integration, even if integration is still ill-defined. Beyond integration policy, the cultivation of a sense of belonging, place, and meaning is fundamental for mental and social wellbeing, not just for refugees, but for anyone.I would go so far as to say that the mental health and sense of belonging among migrants, and their children who will be European-born, is a security issue. Maybe, if placed in that lens, refugees’ mental health will be given the public health and policy attention it deserves.
Imagine if even 15 percent of refugees arrived in Germany with missing limbs. We would assume that their current state would jeopardize their social and economic productivity, no? Trauma and stress, even social stress below the threshold of “trauma,” have biological and cognitive impacts which negatively affect physical health, executive functioning, can lead to anti-social behavior, and can even lead to higher risk of depressive symptoms in offspring. The crisis of refugee mental health and healing is a generational one that should be met with cutting edge research, bold policy, and realism.
There is progress, on many fronts, though most initiatives remain small scale. In Germany for example, the International Psychological Organization (Ipso), Berlin, is training a cadre of several dozen refugees with psychotherapy training in their home countries, to serve as psychotherapists for new arrivals to Germany. The idea of providing clinical services in refugees’ native language—the language of their memories—is an important first step, but requires tremendous human resource investment and cultural sensitivity.
Over a beer, Nisreen—who has a Master’s degree from the University of Damascus—expressed her fundamental concerns over “integration” stress, and what that means for her:
“At every step, our lives are about doing what others tell us. Our country was destroyed. No one asked me. We had to flee to Lebanon. No one asked me. We had to come here and start over, and no one asked me. They tell me we have to do this and that, and that we can’t do certain things. Why doesn’t the world try to integrate with me? Why is integration always about me becoming less of me, and more of what someone else wants me to be?”
So much of healing is about meeting people where they are. Where “they are” is in unpleasant space where discomfort sets the stage, and compassion and fear battle for control of our minds and our actions. To heal, within our own communities or to heal others, requires some acceptance of an uncomfortable new world order, where the options for opinion and policy seem increasingly binary, torn between myopic, but natural, tribalism on one hand, and strategic, if anxious, embrace, on the other. In working to heal others who have experienced unfathomable loss, we will spend much of the time looking in mirrors, where our personal pasts and historical legacies loom ominously. If we confront those mirrors successfully, we can truly make healing as powerful a force as loss.
Mike Niconchuk has spent more than five years working in post-conflict and displaced communities in Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East, with a particular focus on young people at risk of violence and conflict with the law. For three years, after the start of the conflict in Syria, Mike worked as an Emergency Response Coordinator in Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan, leading various projects for violence reduction, youth leadership, and alternative education. Since then, Mike has worked with refugees across various stages of their migration journey—from Greece, to Germany, to Canada, and the United States—conducting research on the links between forced displacement, stress, social cognition, and social behavior. As a Fulbright scholar at University College London, Mike began empirical research into the biological impacts of subjective belonging, and continues to pursue innovative research that combine methods from neuroscience, neurobiology, peacebuilding, and conflict reduction. Currently, Mike works as a consultant for various organizations in the US, Europe, and the Middle East, using a behavioral science lens to design and evaluate programs for violence prevention and psychosocial wellbeing. In 2016, Mike was named an Innovation Fellow at Beyond Conflict, where he continues to develop his research on the psychology and neurobiology of displacement, violence, and marginalization.
Sherman Teichman is the Founding Director Emeritus, (1985-2016) of the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University. He is currently a Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies in the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.
Photo: Mike Niconchuck, private
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Published on February 1, 2017.