Top tips to cope emotionally with the Israel-Hamas war

Woman with eyes closed in the rain
Facing stress (Khoa Vo/ Pexels)

We can hold our fears, but it is important we also hold onto hope. Here are some strategies to help people find ways to stay positive.

Following the initial shock of the October 7 atrocities by Hamas, every conversation in those first few weeks among my Jewish family, friends and colleagues was focussed on sharing, supporting, dissecting, processing and questioning the devastating events of that day. Hearing the experiences of my loved ones has uncovered new layers of pain.

My seven-year-old cousin described he was not scared of being killed at school because they had a bulletproof fence. My hairdresser said her cousin was shot in the crossfire, “but it could be worse” – he was killed instantly rather than being tortured. Strong men in my life are fearful of joining a peace rally.

Every news report since that tragic day has brought forth the harrowing details of the aftermath of war in Israel and Gaza, images of death and destruction for Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and the frightening rise in antisemitism. These have all escalated the experience of distress among Australian Jews. The Jewish community experienced a collective trauma, witnessing from afar a pogrom with a death toll and brutality not seen since the Holocaust.

This triggered the intergenerational inherited trauma deeply felt within Melbourne’s Jewish community, home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel per capita. Many of us also wrestle with the intense political partisanship which does not accommodate the ambivalent feelings of both anger about the brutality to our people as well as distress and compassion for the impact of the war on Palestinians.

It’s hard to prepare yourself for these harrowing personal insights and graphic images of war, and it can add to the sense of a lack of control. It seems our community is holding this pain and fear, the tears tightly withheld under the surface, or occasionally unleashing in a torrent. I felt and heard the impact this is having on us – constantly watching the news and our phones through the night to check on family and friends in Israel.

The dismay at the silence, indifferent or poorly phrased responses our non-Jewish friends or colleagues. The hypervigilance resulting in misinterpreting decorative blood on homes as a threat rather than a Halloween decoration. The weight of this compounding burden after several months means many of us are emotionally depleted, with reduced cognitive capacity, motivation and energy to perform as usual. Particularly early on, many of us felt distracted at work and school or were not going at all.

For many in our community, there are parts of us filled with sadness, fear, worry, guilt, anger, grief, and pain. We are entitled to these feelings as our nightmares come to life. They are understandable reactions and these emotions serve an important purpose – to orient us to injustice, threats and the damage that has been done. But how can those of us so strongly affected by the unravelling situation manage this uncontrollable political and social conflict at a personal level?

Through my work as neuropsychologist with survivors of trauma, I know of a range of tools available to support our coping. Many of the suggestions below are drawn from an evidenced-based approach called ACT, from the World Health Organisation:

Emotional regulation

Heightened emotions activate our survival instincts of fight or flight which focus on quick shallow thoughts and impulsively acting on our angry or anxious feelings. The complex world of today requires a cool head, deeper reflection and thoughtful planned behaviours. Regulating our emotions enables us to switch to our higher-level frontal lobe thinking. To start this process, spend a few minutes each day concentrating on slow deep breathing into your belly and orienting to the here and now of our body and environment by looking at the sky and trees, and feel your feet connected to the ground.

At difficult times, taking a break from the 24/7 news cycle of gloom and doom is important, and may benefit from some structure and limits. Instead, spend time engaging in activities that bring meaningful distraction – whether that be watching a comedy, gardening, spending time with friends, family or pets. Rest, relaxation, prayer, meditation and mindfulness can recharge our emotional batteries.

Holding it lightly

Even though strong and difficult feelings will remain, we can try to hold them lightly. Making room within ourselves will allow the feelings to fluctuate, meld and move. Without judgement, mindfully noticing these feelings and how they are experienced in our body and mind can help us disentangle from their hold. Keeping some flexibility to our emotions, without pushing them away or letting them consume us, will enable us to progress through this journey, rather than getting stuck in depression, anxiety, agitation, or fury in the longer-term.

Acting in line with our values

The trauma we are experiencing can also prompt us to take stock of our values, beliefs and priorities. Whilst we might be feeling anger, for example, we do not have to act with anger. Instead, we can respond to these emotions in ways which align with our deeper values which may include helping others, safety and compassion.

Participate in activities that give you a sense of purpose and connection with your values, such as charity, checking in on your loved ones, or volunteering. It can be challenging, however, when our values are in conflict, such as being proud of our Jewish identity versus our fear of becoming a target when out in public. There is no right or wrong here, and each of us will navigate these conflicts in our own way.

Post-traumatic Growth

Recalibration of values and priorities in the face of processing difficult emotions brought on by traumatic events is called post-traumatic growth. Dr Yehuda Ben-Yishay developed cognitive rehabilitation after treating soldiers with traumatic brain injury sustained in the Yom Kippur war:

Built on a foundation of optimism for recovery, this led to significantly improved outcomes and a new field of practice, which I now specialise in as a clinical neuropsychologist, and demonstrates a collective post-traumatic growth. Ukrainians have also recently described experiencing post-traumatic growth. Whilst only some may find this silver lining, knowing that post-traumatic growth is possible can help us to recognise and support this positive process despite the tragic impetus.

Changing from unhelpful to helpful interpretations

It can feel jarring to move between the worlds of the intensively focussed Jewish community and into contact with non-Jewish friends and colleagues where the conflict may not even be mentioned. With our heightened fear, this silence can feel as threatening, oppressive and hurtful as outright antisemitism.

It is easy to fill the silence ourselves with assumptions that people don’t care about us or our struggles through this tragedy. Together with the broader outward antisemitism, it can seem like a validation of the paranoia and fear many of us hold being Holocaust survivors or their descendants.

Instead, we can notice these thoughts with curiosity and reframe the silence with more helpful interpretations including that they don’t know what to say, they don’t follow the news, they hadn’t made the connection, they are waiting for someone else to take the lead, they don’t want to pry, or they are waiting for me to raise it first.

Whether accurate or not, these ideas keep the door open in the relationship. I invite you to consider ways to reconsider attributions of your friends and colleagues too. Some people may need us to create opportunities for them to check in. We can start conversations by sharing that we’re not doing ok and why.

Gratitude

We can practice gratitude each day – recognising the small and significant joys and privileges we have, and orienting our mind to a more balanced evaluation of our circumstances. It can feel incongruent to continue to celebrate weddings and birthdays and laugh at comedies at this time. With heavy hearts, we can rejoice in life whilst another part of us holds onto the pain. This is a familiar aspect of Jewish celebrations which includes remembrance, holding the light and dark together.

Accessing formal support

These evidence-based strategies can provide an initial starting point to help manage distressing feelings and mitigate ongoing trauma.  Our emotions can feel overwhelming and start to have a more pervasive impact on our daily functioning. Speaking to mental health professionals can be helpful for learning individualised strategies to manage difficult emotions and improve functioning.

Changes in appetite or sleep, being more irritable, significant distress, ongoing difficulty concentrating, thoughts of self-harm or suicide are signs that professional support is advisable. Reaching out via phone, text or online to lifeline and beyondblue, can also provide a brief reprieve and connection. Ask your GP for a mental health treatment plan or access with your Employee Assistance Program.

How the broader community can lean in

Friends, peers and colleagues, are encouraged to check in on your Jewish and Palestinian friends by inquiring about how they’re doing. Even briefly raising your concern for how the person is coping, contained to the personal rather than political aspects, can have a significant impact on helping people feel seen and supported.

Our history of endurance demonstrates our resilience and fortitude. We can hold our fears, but it is important we also hold onto hope, and a relentless optimism that we will survive. As the emotional demands and stressors increase, so too must our efforts for supporting our own and our community’s mental wellbeing. Drawing from the above strategies or other practices you find helpful, now is the time to take active steps to cope.