Psychology

Navigating the Crisis of War From A Distance

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Following the recent horrendous Hamas attack in Israel last week, my initial disbelief was quickly overshadowed by the magnitude of the reports. In the subsequent week, I grappled with a complex mix of emotions, concerns for friends and family, and the responsibility of supporting friends and colleagues through their profound sorrow, anger, and, in some cases, a paralyzing search for a path forward. One week later, I’d like to share some insights I’ve gained from my professional experience along with those learned this past week that might be of assistance to others, as the path ahead remains uncertain.

In times of crisis, individuals react in various ways, and where there should be no judgment on what that reaction is, it may not always be the best for them. During such trying times, it is vital to prioritize self-care. As we are reminded when boarding a plane, “please put on your mask before assisting others.” So, what does self-care entail? The ultimate goal is to bring yourself as close as possible to your pre-crisis functioning, or at the very least, to a point where you can manage your basic needs, such as eating and sleeping. 

Please be aware that this is not an exhaustive list, nor does it replace seeking professional assistance if necessary.

Eat, Sleep, Break, Repeat: If you ever took a psychology class, you may have learned about the fight-or-flight response. When our brain’s danger detection system, the Amygdala, is triggered, it shifts us into survival mode. Desires to hide or confront whatever has activated this response are normal reactions to threats. In preparation for this, our body diverts physical resources to the parts of our body needed for a response. However, this can temporarily put other vital life functions on hold, like eating, sleeping, and pausing to catch an emotional breath. This response is normal and necessary in the face of danger but can become detrimental if it persists. Therefore, scheduling regular meals, setting aside time for sleep, and taking short breaks, such as a ten-minute walk, can help maintain your mental and physical well-being during these challenging times.

Mind Your Media Intake: Media consumption, particularly social media, can significantly impact our mental and physical well-being. In the context of the current crisis, two points merit attention:

  • Avoid “doom-scrolling,” the habit of endlessly scrolling through negative news stories, as it can intensify anxiety, cause sleep disturbances, and lower self-esteem. Stick primarily to reading the news instead (which can also create stress, but hopefully at a lower rate), as excessive exposure to disturbing videos can shock your system into a fight-or-flight autopilot that your mind and body can’t sustain. Also, be mindful of what images you are exposing yourself to, as they may also be challenging for your brain to integrate into your sense of self and moral compass, causing even more distress.
  • Turn it off. Regardless of the situation, but especially during a crisis, consider turning off your phone and TV at least an hour before your bedtime. Consuming media, especially distressing content, can lead to heightened brain activity, making sleeping difficult. Your brain won’t let you sleep if it thinks you need to be ready to run from or confront danger.

Put the Crisis into A Perspective: Therapists and trauma specialists employ a technique that encourages trauma survivors to separate themselves from the traumatic event appropriately. It is helpful, and I have used it professionally and personally. When I was in a terrible car accident with my entire family, I went to get professional help for a newly developed fear of driving, along with terrible flashbacks. One of the first things the therapist said was that “the accident happened on the Eden Expressway, and that is where it stayed. It happened to you, but it is not happening to you anymore. You left the accident there.” While this was helpful for a traumatic incident that physically ended, the ongoing crisis in Israel cannot be framed the same way. The accident was a single event. The current war is not. Nonetheless, some ways exist to place the current situation into a perspective(s).

  • Knowledge is power. I have heard many questions from young people and adults about what happened last week and the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the history is long, it is equally detailed. Not knowing the history and the facts can make us more anxious. As part of our danger detector being activated, we are desperate to gather as much information as possible to decide how to respond. At the same time, the sources we find can be biased and not sharing all the facts, making us more confused. Speak to a trusted expert or search a media outlet you trust to gain the facts to help know what occurred last week and the historical context.
  • We have been through a lot lately. COVID traumatized much of the world and created an ongoing crisis in which many felt ill-informed and left with little to no sense of control. Over the last year, we have also been exposed to the terrible war in Ukraine with all the disturbing stories and footage. Our danger detector has been overworked lately, and now we have the war in Israel with Hamas crossing a moral line that many, Jews and non-Jews alike, can’t comprehend. For Jews specifically, the trauma is further exacerbated as many Jews know someone or likely many in Israel, making every moment hit closer to home. The situation in Israel on its own is trauma-evoking enough, but in the context of the last few years, it would be understandable if we are having an even harder time.
  • Putting guilt in its place. I chose to keep this here, although it may deserve its own section. I have repeatedly heard a sense of guilt from friends and colleagues for either not being in Israel now to help or feeling like they are taking advantage of the freedom the Israeli soldiers’ fight affords us. This is especially true among the Israelis I have spoken with in America. Then there is the guilt of feeling you are not doing enough, leading some to push themselves beyond healthy limits. These feelings are normal and reflect a deep care for Israel and its people. At the same time, not feeling guilty doesn’t equate to not caring, and there are many ways to support Israel if we cannot be there. 

Placing the crisis in a perspective does not diminish the pain; it merely helps chart a path toward dealing with the trauma it creates.

Regain Control Where You Can: Most of us thrive on routines and enjoy activities that provide a sense of control and normalcy. During these turbulent times, maintaining a routine can be challenging, and a sense of control may elude us. To address this, set aside time at the start of the week, day, or even at the top of each hour to plan and schedule your activities, ranging from basic needs like meals to essential work projects. If you have a morning routine, like going to morning prayers as many religious Jews do, keeping that time can be a good way to get your day started with some sense of normalcy. If planning too far ahead right now feels overwhelming, allocate time for a brief, enjoyable activity to remind yourself that you still have some control.

Smile: In seemingly dire circumstances, smiling may feel absurd, but this simple act can remind your brain that happiness is possible amid the darkness. Studies (12) have shown that smiling, even without an external prompt, can increase happiness. Try it for yourself. Just make yourself smile and see how you feel. You can also try to find comforting enjoyable things to read or watch to help with your smiling. I have found myself watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee lately as a source of comfort. I like comedians, cars and coffee so it works for me.

Check on Others/Ask for Support: Fear, anxiety, and sadness can be isolating, even when part of a supportive community. If you are in a position to do so, reach out to friends and colleagues to check on their well-being. This is especially important if you notice changes in their behavior. If you are unsure about your emotional state, ask a friend to check in regularly. In times of crisis, individuals have varying capacities to navigate trauma, so be there for those in need and communicate your needs. We can hopefully all get through this by supporting one another, and offering help can provide a sense of purpose and meaning in these trying times.

Advocate for Theirs and Your Mental Health: If you are in a leadership role, prioritize mental health for your team. If that is not happening for you, become your own advocate. If necessary, take time off and communicate your current limitations to your supervisor. Stress the importance of attending to your own well-being, knowing that only by safeguarding your mental health can you be of assistance to others.

Remember to prioritize self-care and well-being in these challenging times as you navigate through this ongoing, hopefully soon-to-end, crisis. Your mental, emotional, and physical health are crucial, both for your own sake and to support those around you.

Farewell To My Students

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