Palestinians shopping mall Gaza - AP - 23.8.11
Palestinians in Gaza City, August 2011. Photo by AP
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Growing up in the Gaza Strip, 17-year-old Mohammed Omran never imagined that dancing eyes shut would induce a liberating feeling, a rare experience for many Palestinians in the Israeli-blockaded enclave run by Hamas Islamists.

"The thing I like most is when I close my eyes and start dancing in circles. I feel free," said Omran, who takes part in a program brought to Gaza by a U.S. psychiatrist to teach people techniques to deal with anger and family tensions as well as stress and anxiety.

Some 45,000 children and adults have participated in the program since it was launched in Gaza in 2005 by the Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM), which teaches mental health professionals in conflict and disaster zones meditation and self-expression techniques that can help their communities cope.

Palestinian psychologist Hassan Ziada is one of 420 Gaza professionals who have been trained to use body-mind techniques.

"People prefer to express their (psychological) suffering by complaining of physical illness," said Ziada of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, a non-governmental organization. "They feel shy to express something mental or psychological."

Socio-economic conditions in Gaza are dire. Most of its 1.6 million people depend on food aid and unemployment is estimated at 60 per cent. Violence between Gaza-based Palestinian militants and the Israeli army is frequent.

"The mind-body techniques are good in reducing the effects of the circumstances in which Gazans live," said Ziada.

CMBM founder and director James S Gordon, 69, decided to launch a body-mind program in Gaza after his first visit to the impoverished enclave in 2002.

"Unfortunately, not many doctors recognize that physical disease is connected with the mind," he said on a recent visit for a workshop in Gaza. "Every human has to be his own doctor."

An expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression, anxiety, and psychological trauma, Gordon has launched trauma relief programs in Kosovo, Haiti and Israel and has worked with U.S. soldiers returning from service in war zones.

The Gaza program has been hailed as a success. An evaluation of 1,000 children and adults who took part in the 10-session mind-body training workshop showed a significant decrease in stress symptoms, CMBM says on its website.

The findings were published in the International Journal of Stress Management.

"At the beginning I doubted that women would come back to the therapy, especially as I don't give them something material," said Siham Al Tawil, a mind-body counselor who works with children and women with special needs.

"But then I saw that almost all of them came back to practice these techniques," she said. "A woman can't easily go out alone in our culture, but here she brings a friend or a relative. We show them how to cope and change their mood and gain equilibrium."

The program teaches people to dance, draw, close their eyes and think about positive situations to cope with stress, depression and anxiety and to change the realities they live in.

The center also runs a workshop to help Gaza women with cancer to better cope with their condition.

Dancing is frowned upon in conservative Gaza, where many people observe a strict version of Islam. So doctor Gordon's team had to put men and women in separate classes.

"It helps me decrease the stress of the final year (exams)," said high-school student Omran after a dancing session with his friends.