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Watching war unfold is distressing — here's how to protect your mental health

Palestinians evacuate the area following an Israeli airstrike on the Sousi mosque in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Images of suffering, violence and death in Gaza and Israel have flooded the news since Oct. 7.
MAHMUD HAMS
/
AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians evacuate the area following an Israeli airstrike on the Sousi mosque in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Images of suffering, violence and death in Gaza and Israel have flooded the news since Oct. 7.

Since the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out in October, my Instagram feed has been filled with violent and heart-wrenching videos and photos: a Palestinian mother hunched over the body of her child killed by an Israeli air strike; a baby's bloody hand reaching out from the rubble; an Israeli mother wondering if her two little girls, who were kidnapped by the militant group Hamas, were still alive.

Even though the images are deeply distressing — sometimes they drive me to tears — I've felt compelled to bear witness to the war.

In my years working in the news, I've reported on child trauma in Ukraine, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the Syrian civil war. Coverage of the current conflict has been nonstop and it's been harder for me to look away.

And I've noticed that something strange is happening to me. Even when I am not watching the news, I feel irritable and anxious, like I am on high alert. Whenever I am with my own 8-month-old child, I get flashbacks of posts I've seen, especially of children and infants killed, and I worry for his safety. What is going on? How can I pull myself out of this nightmare loop?

To find out, I reached out to psychiatrist Arash Javanbakht, director of the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University and author of the book Afraid: Understanding the Purpose of Fear and Harnessing the Power of Anxiety. He helps people like refugees and victims of torture work through their trauma. And he's learned how to protect himself from the emotional toll of his job.

He says it can feel bad to look away from conflicts and disasters around the world – we who have the privilege to do so – but remember that your vicarious suffering won't help anyone.

He also explains what happens in your brain and nervous system when you look at graphic images — and what you can do to safeguard your mental wellbeing while still staying informed and engaged.

Frequent exposure to traumatic events can be harmful

Javanbakht wasn't surprised by my emotional reaction to the photos of the Gaza-Israel conflict. "Any human who sees these scenes will feel horrible," he says.

But he warns that prolonged exposure to this type of imagery and news can have a negative impact on your mental health. One study found that people who had more direct exposure to the attacks on 9/11 and spent a lot of time viewing the nonstop TV coverage of the towers collapsing "showed signs of trauma, depression and anxiety," says Javanbakht.

Another study found that people who experienced repeated media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 faced acute stress.

So pay attention to your body when you're consuming news about the war, says Javanbakht. "We have good sensors within us. When you feel frustration and anger and when you feel your anxiety is going up too much, it's time to stop."

He also told me a person may be more vulnerable to the traumatic imagery if they identify with one of the affected groups.

So the images of killed babies in the Gaza war, he explains, could be more distressing to me because I have more of an "emotional connection" as the mother of a young child.

And the suffering of Palestinians can feel especially close to home because I come from an Arab and Muslim family.

That's a natural reaction, adds Javanbakht. "[Humans] are born to feel stronger affiliations to groups of people who we relate to. We are tribal people."

Violent images can activate your fight-or-flight response

Watching violent news and images can put your nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, says Javanbakht. "The unconscious part of you is seeing human suffering and people being killed or seriously injured — which means danger," he says.

In this state, stress hormones course through your body, your heart rate may be accelerated and, "your attention is directed at what could be dangerous," says Javanbakht. He suggests that could be why I've been so worried for my baby's safety over the past few weeks, even though he is not in immediate danger.

If you're in this state of mind when you're using social media, it can lock you into a harmful pattern, says Javanbakht: scrolling through posts endlessly in search of negative content.

"The brain's habit-forming circuitry is engaged at an automatic level. You're hitting this lever for more dopamine" over and over again, he says.

"Because my attention is now directed toward threat detection, even if I see a picture of a puppy, I'll scroll [through it quickly] until I see the next explosion photo," he adds.

Your agony is not going to help anyone

When I mentioned that I felt a duty to look at videos and photos of the war, Javanbakht shared an uncomfortable truth: "You feeling worse and in more agony is not going to bring that kid back to life. It's not going to end the suffering in Gaza."

That feeling that I should be consuming these images "comes out of desperation," he adds. You "want to do something but you don't know what to do, so you try to suffer as much as you can, just as much as they are."

But you "consciously adding to that aching is not going to help anybody," says Javanbakht.

On a practical level, I know he's right. But part of me feels that my pain has a role to play. It helps me be empathize with those whose lives have been destroyed and upended — and motivates me to do what I can to help them.

Channel your energy into something positive

Anger, frustration, fear and anxiety "all have energies," explains Javanbakht. "These defenses have developed within us to prepare us for the fight-or-flight response. They stir up our energy to pull us away from danger."

So "turn that energy into something productive," he adds. Instead of continuing to look at distressing images on social media, look into ways you can help: volunteer, donate, or communicate your viewpoint to elected officials.

How to keep your stress in check

Javanbakht shares ways you can protect your mental health while staying updated on what's happening with the war.

  • Reduce your exposure to upsetting news and imagery. Once you've read the major headlines of the day, "you'll know enough for the next five to six hours" because the news tends to operate in cycles, says Javanbakht. "Scrolling more is not going to add to the information. It's just going to create an emotional toll on you," he says. 

  • Get all sides of the story. It can help you get a more balanced view of the crisis. "Everything has become so tribal that one side doesn't tell you the full story," he says. Take control of what you consume and make sure you get your news from trusted sources. "Don't let your emotions be manipulated and used like a tool." 

  • Redirect your attention. If you find it hard to stop looking at this violent content, watch a lighthearted program or something else you will enjoy, like sports, a nature documentary or a food show, says Javanbakht.

  • Focus on your routine. "Do the same things you were doing before. Don't let [your feelings about the war] slow you down," he says. So spend time with your family. Exercise. "Especially cardio and high-intensity workouts. It's a good way of relieving stress and frustration."
  • Notice how you feel and get support. "When these emotions come up, address them," he says. "Talk with people who understand you and can empathize with you — it can help." If you need to, get professional help.
  • Keep things in perspective. Remember there are "7 billion people living in this world right now and there are a lot of good things happening," says Javanbakht. "There are Jews and Muslims who are living like normal humans elsewhere."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.