How Students Coped with the War: The Experience of Lebanon

Article excerpt

The idea of writing this article came from my advisor at Teachers College, Columbia University. He asked me to give an oral presentation on my experience as a college student in war-tom Lebanon. At the time, my impressions of the war had been one-dimensional: I was convinced that the war had had a devastating effect on people's mental health and that just like thousands of my peers I had been denied a normal college experience. When I started researching the topic, I came to realize that there was no strong evidence of any lasting psychological damage to the Lebanese people and found that various studies and journalistic reports concurred that the Lebanese students, by and large, were able to cope successfully with the war and fashion a relatively normal existence throughout the civil conflict. This realization forced me to look back on my own experience more objectively: I was indeed able to receive a quality education; my social life was rather rewarding; I took part in many social and cultural events on and off campus; I had my share of good times and cultivated great friendships; and had many stimulating cultural and social experiences. I was no longer sure which theory to present to my classmates: that the war crippled students and interfered with their academic and social life or that students had survived the war unaffected.

I decided to take my presentation a step further and write a doctoral dissertation based on this topic. In addition to compiling extensive literature on war and coping, I interviewed a group of students who attended the American University of Beirut (my alma matter) during the war and asked them to reflect on their experiences.

In this article I will present a summary of my findings, which I hope will shed some light on the question at hand: How did students cope with the war? Although the focus of this article is on older students' experiences, my discussion will also include a part on how younger students coped with the war.

The Psychology of Coping

Coping is a process common to every individual and is often used interchangeably with the terms "adjustment," "adaptation" (Dimsdale, 1978), "mastery" (Vingerhoets, 1985), even "survival" (Bloom & Halsema, 1983). Although most commonly associated with warlike settings, coping has been observed in a wide range of situations, from life transitions to pain, loss, and death of loved ones (Dimsdale, 1978).

Coping is an integral part of the stress theory. According to its formulator, Richard Lazarus, there is a two-way relationship between the person and the environment, which is mediated by two cognitive exercises: appraisal and coping. The former refers to the individual's assessment of every encounter in terms of its implications on the individual's well-being, whereas the latter involves the behavioral and cognitive processes that help the individual deal with the stressor in regard to health, well-being, and social functioning (Vingerhoets, 1985).

Coping encompasses two responses: (a) external efforts focused on problem-solving techniques and direct action, and (b) internal efforts focused on emotions. In the action-oriented response the individual reacts directly to the stress and channels his or her resources in such a way as to alter the conditions that create a problem; for example, by confronting an enemy, avoiding a confrontation, or getting ready for an attack (Lazarus, 1982). The emotion-oriented response addresses the effects of a stressor and seeks to soothe them; it shields the individual from the psychological harm and palliates emotions of distress. Such efforts include denying the stressor or altering one's attitude toward the stressor by perceiving it as less threatening (Punamaki, 1986; Solomon, Mikulincer, & Flum, 1988).

It is widely accepted that war, defined as "any armed conflict which includes one or more governments, and causes deaths of 1000 or more people per year" (Zwi & Ugalde, 1989, pp. …

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