The ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza has once again brought to the forefront the grim realities of war and its impact on innocent civilians. As we’re flooded with images and stories of destruction, suffering, and loss, it’s natural to feel a deep sense of sadness, empathy, helplessness and, of course, anger and dismay at what we are witnessing. Many are finding it increasingly challenging to balance their desire to stay informed with the emotional toll this crisis can take. Unfortunately, this can lead to secondary trauma.
Secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma, is a phenomenon where individuals experience symptoms of trauma as a result of witnessing or hearing about traumatic events happening to others, even if they aren’t directly involved. In the context of the Israel-Gaza crisis, secondary trauma can manifest as feelings of grief and extreme sadness, anxiety and depression, helplessness, and even physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches.
For those trying to stay informed, the distressing images and videos can take a toll on their mental and emotional wellbeing. The line between being an informed and empathic global citizen and subjecting oneself to secondary trauma can be quite thin, and many of us find it difficult to turn away from the images flashing on our screens. We are in a state of disbelief.
So, how can you navigate this difficult terrain while staying informed without succumbing to secondary or vicarious trauma? Here are some strategies:
1. Practise self-compassion
Recognise that feeling affected by the suffering of others is a sign of empathy, not weakness. Practise self-compassion and acknowledge your feelings without judgment. Remember that it’s OK to step back and prioritise your own wellbeing. You can turn your screens off; take a step into the sunlight; share your feelings and thoughts with friends and family. Connecting with others who share your concerns can provide a sense of solidarity and emotional support.
2. Set boundaries with news consumption
While it’s important to stay informed about world events, it’s equally vital to set boundaries on your news consumption. This is critical. Designate specific times during the day to catch up on the latest developments and then switch off. Avoid constantly checking news alerts or engaging in ongoing, distressing conversations. This will help prevent emotional overload.
3. Select reputable sources to stay informed
Choose reliable, reputable news sources for your information. These outlets often present the news in a more balanced and factual manner, which can help reduce the emotional impact of graphic imagery or sensationalism. Ask trusted friends and family where they are getting their information. This may open up a new avenue of more balanced information.
4. Limit exposure to graphic content
Avoid exposing yourself to excessive graphic images or stories. On social media, where graphic content can circulate rapidly, consider muting or unfollowing accounts that frequently share distressing images or stories. Many platforms also allow you to turn on content warnings or filters. This allows you to take back your power to decide what you tune into.
5. Distract and detoxify
For many people, it will be difficult to go about their everyday lives, knowing what is going on in other parts of the world. It is important to engage in activities that help you unwind and distance yourself from the news cycle. Exercise, spend time with loved ones, and get outside and enjoy nature. These activities can provide a much-needed emotional detox. And turn your phone off – take a break from the relentless information and comments which we scroll through.
6. Seek professional help
It’s not uncommon to feel helpless and overwhelmed at times like this, but if you find that secondary trauma is seriously affecting your mental health and daily life, consider speaking to a mental health professional. They can provide guidance, support, and coping strategies for your specific situation. Don’t wait until feelings of overwhelm become too entrenched. If you feel like you need another perspective, reach out.
7. Engage in positive actions
Feeling helpless in the face of tragedy is natural, but taking positive actions can help alleviate these emotions. Consider donating to reputable relief organisations, participating in peaceful advocacy, or volunteering your time to make a difference. Often in these times there is so much need and every little movement towards unity helps.
Diane Young is an addiction and trauma specialist, and therapist at South Pacific Private, a treatment centre for trauma, addiction and mental health conditions
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org