'It's Completely Normal to Feel Abnormal'

Eran, shalom.

What's your name?

Yes. Yes, sure.

How old are you? 60?

How can we help you?

Where do you live?

In Haifa? You're having a hard time there.

From where are you speaking to me? From your house?

Do you have a protected area there?

That's where you are? In the stairwell?

You prefer to be on the stairs rather than to go down to the air raid shelter? I understand. Okay.

Is it hard for you there now? Yes, these are not easy times for you.

How are you managing? Do you feel that the last few days have been more difficult?

Yes. Yes.

That's how you sound.

What frightens you?

What happened today that made you decide to call us?

A lot today, I understand.

Yes, there were lots more warning sirens today.

And this happened near your house? Did you see the rockets falling?

Did you hear, did you hear the booms?

Uh-huh. Before that you were in the center of the country staying with the kids. And then you returned. When? Now?

And now you're alone at home?

You say you're not completely alone, that you have neighbors.

Is that the worst feeling you have? The attrition, and waiting for a solution?

Did you feel the same at the beginning of the war or has it become more difficult for you in the past few days?

Do you define yourself as someone who always suffers from anxiety?

Very normal. Sure. It's very normal.

Yes, it's very logical that we should be afraid. Yes, fear is a very natural response.

How does it express itself? Do you feel pressure, anxiety, do you have palpitations?

How do you sleep?

Uh-huh, you hardly sleep at all.

The war is finding its way into the Tel Aviv branch of Eran, the Hebrew acronym for the hotline for psychological first aid via telephone. The switchboard transfers calls from residents of the north who complain of pressure and anxiety, to its Tel Aviv volunteers. Eran's branches in Haifa and Carmiel have closed down because they are located in air raid shelters that have been cleared to make way for local residents. The calls from the north are therefore transferred to eight Eran branches in the center of the country and Jerusalem.

"Since the start of the war," says Tzila Neuman, the director of Eran, "we have dealt with an enormous number of calls. We operate the hotline 24 hours a day and during the first 15 days of the war, we received 27,427 calls. Because of the heavy load and the lack of additional volunteers, only 11,101 were answered. On a regular day, we get about 400 calls. Now it's close to 1,500 and about 80 percent of the calls are from the north."

Eran has hotlines in Hebrew, Russian, Amharic and Arabic. At the moment, some 1,000 volunteers are helping to deal with the increased number of calls. "Most of the callers speak of trembling, fear, shivers, no desire to get out of bed, no desire to eat and palpitations. We give them psychological first aid but we don't give psychological treatment over the telephone.

"We have a kind of recipe for dealing with the anxiety during times of war. We recommend to those who can, not to remain alone, to keep talking to people close to them and if they don't have anyone, to telephone us again; and to do physical activity and relaxation exercises such as taking deep breaths or using guided imagination techniques. Above all, we explain that at these times it's completely normal to feel abnormal, to have a sense of anxiety and of fear."

Is Israeli society suffering from some form of collective anxiety? Lydia Sela, who has been director of the Tel Aviv branch of Eran for the past month and a half, believes the answer is yes. Before she took up her post, Sela, who has a master's degree in psychology, was a mental health officer in the Israel Defense Forces for 20 years.

"Most of the calls to Eran are from residents of the north, Jews and Arabs, women and men, youngsters and elderly people," she says. "Many of the callers talk about their anxiety, pressure and the lack of information. We listen to them, calm them and when necessary, refer them to people that can help them.

"A woman has just called us, an Arab resident of Beit Jann. A Katyusha fell near her home. Her husband went to take a look and she remained with the children and became very anxious. At the same time, we had a call from a mother with a baby who was crying hysterically, as a siren was wailing, and she told us she had not managed to run down to the air raid shelter. We went through a process of reducing her anxiety with her; we spoke to her for 40 minutes and instructed her how to breathe correctly, and finally she calmed down."

Eran, shalom.

Your son is in the army. Where is he serving?

You're calling on his behalf. I understand.

Did he go by there by chance? He went past the spot where the Katyusha fell, by chance, and saw the person who had been killed?

What kind of changes do you see since then in his behavior?

I understand. He's short-tempered, perspiring, nervous and has a short fuse.

And you are worried.

Have you tried talking to him?

He slammed the door and went out?

You're asking what you should do, if you should call the IDF office in your town.

"Despite Tel Aviv's image of being cut off and in a bubble, so to speak, many volunteers, residents of the city, have been coming in to Eran to beef up our shifts and assist the residents of the north," Sela says. One of them is Yael, 45, a clinical social worker by profession. "I decided to volunteer as soon as the war started. I felt I had to do something," she says.

Yael has dealt not only with individual callers but also with family problems. "I found myself having to do some kind of family counseling on the telephone - the family members passed the call on to each other," she says. "And I also had a case where I had to mediate between neighbors who are in the same air raid shelter and quarreling with each other."

Yael senses that the residents of the center of the country are also feeling anxiety. "Anxiety takes many forms," she says. "In conversations with residents of the north, I can hear the anxiety in the tone of their voices, in the way they are breathing, in the pace of their conversation. But also here in the center, I can identify anxiety - in the arguments over whether the IDF should attack with ground forces or only from the air, in a heightened form of reticence, or in cynicism - these are also the outcome of anxiety."