An Interview with Enzo di Taranto
Humanitarian actors are often deployed to hardship duty stations during armed-conflict, protracted crises, health epidemics and natural disasters. In such hostile environments, physical, mental, and emotional stressors may lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as: over-eating, smoking and alcoholism. Consequently, anxiety, depression, substance abuse or insomnia may develop.
We talked with Enzo di Taranto, former Head of Office of OCHA in Haiti and current Head of the Darfur Coordination Unit in Sudan. He shared with us his three decades of valuable experience in conflict-torn settings and complex emergencies worldwide, including in Colombia, El Salvador, Mali, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Kosovo, among others. In these multifaceted contexts, he has experimented with effective strategies to cope with stress and maintain psycho-physical balance even in the midst of extreme situations.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
When asked about his interest in humanitarian affairs, he described a fascination with “how the human behavior develops in difficult conditions and the art of being aware of one’s own capabilities – both mental and physical – out of one’s comfort zone”.
Remembering a Serbian adage, he said: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”!
Regarding his most recent field experiences in Haiti and Darfur, Enzo di Taranto stressed that the challenges and living conditions are evidently very different. However, he observed that, deep inside, human beings react similarly under stress, regardless of its nature. He mentioned the “primitive reptile brain”: that zone of our cerebral structure that activates the fight-or-flight instinct and operates in the same manner in any survival situation.
While the physical safety of humanitarian operators was his priority in Haiti, Mr. di Taranto was also aware of their mental and emotional stress during heavy rains and strong wind, since unpredictable and violent weather often caused anxiety and insomnia. Furthermore, common criminality – especially in urban areas – intensified the sense of insecurity, particularly in women who were also exposed to the risk of assault. As a senior manager, he continuously observed the impact of these and other factors to determine if any staff was exposed to a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can develop in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.
On the other extreme, the Sudanese region of Darfur is located in a deserted region with very little rainfall and constant exposure to dry climate and dust storms (haboob). Enzo di Taranto observed that dust creates discomfort in field operators who frequently suffer respiratory problems, allergies and inflammation to the eyes and nostrils. He also commented that, due to the limited variety of food, international workers are unable to get enough nutrients – such as minerals and omega-3 oils – to stay healthy. In order to tackle these problems, he suggests that humanitarian actors learn the basics of health and nutrition, and assume the right combination of supplements – like magnesium, potassium and fish oil – to boost their immune system.
Stay Relaxed and Alert
Contrary to Haiti, there is little criminality in Darfur. However, intra-tribal fighting, vehicle high-jacking and potential terrorist threats cause concern in the mind of the civilian staff.
“There is a curfew, and the staff lives in highly-militarized camps, undertaking escorted missions in the deep field remains a major source of stress, especially due to the history of kidnapping and militia attacks in the whole Darfur”.
In addition to the physical stress, the mental impact of living in extreme environments may be severe for those who do not care of themselves and train adequately. Mr. Enzo observed that colleagues who live sedentarily, with high-carbs and/or high-sugar diets, or who do not develop relaxation techniques and out-of-office interests, often suffer from heavy workload, compulsive thinking and insomnia. He also noticed that “contrary to the military personnel, civilian field workers don’t know how to stay in shape. It’s not that they don’t want, they just don’t know”. To aggravate their conditions, many colleagues are seated most part of the day – often in a bad posture – thus developing neck and/or low back pain. In many cases, he also witnessed that staff uses the Missions’ gym facilities without knowing the proper forms, thus increasing the risk of joint inflammation and dangerous discal herniae. In this respect, he praises the work of the OCHA Welfare Unit which provides to the staff precious information and guidance to remain fit.
New Training Methods
- Brainwave Entrainment
Brainwaves are simple computer-generated beats, sometimes combined with vibrations or lights, designed to induce a specific state of mind. For instance, tetha brainwaves promote relaxation and sleep, while gamma waves stimulate focus and concentration. When used properly and regularly, brainwave entrainment can greatly benefit the mental health of field operators, helping them to stimulate the natural production of wellbeing hormones like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Free brainwaves audio-visual files can be listened and downloaded from the internet. You can learn more about brainwave entrainment here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainwave_entrainment
2. Breathing Control
Enzo di Taranto explained that learning to practice deep breathing is key to maintain physical and mental health, especially in highly stressful situations. “Yoga and Tai Chi are easy disciplines that all staff should practice” – he suggests – adding that the so-called “Wim Hof Method” recently introduced new information about breathing, mind control and physical conditions in extreme environments. Combined with cold showers, this innovative method helps strengthening the immune system, making more difficult for viruses and bacteria to attack the organism. This is obviously vital in unhealthy environments where humanitarian operations normally occur. Free information and videos on the Wim Hof Method are available at https://www.wimhofmethod.com/practice-the-method
Note: While multiple scientific studies have demonstrated that these methods are safe, it is recommended to consult a certified physician before engaging in them on a regular basis, especially if one has – or suspects to have – depression, asthma or epilepsy.
Tips for Managers
- Encourage the staff to use welfare facilities, like gyms and yoga classes
- Learn to identify signs of stress, burnout, and trauma in yourself and the staff
- Lead by example. Adopt a healthy diet and an energetic lifestyle
- Stay relaxed, clear and focused even during crises and emergencies
With this contribution, Enzo di Taranto hopes to raise awareness about the importance of devoting adequate time, attention and discipline to enhance one’s health. The information that he provided may help humanitarian actors to avoid the physical and mental consequences of serving for prolonged periods of time in extreme conditions.
Interview by Aranya Sarkar, OCHA/Geneva. She is a recent graduate from the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London in Mental Health Studies.