Taking care of ourselves when Israel is fighting

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I know that many of us are struggling with the news out of Israel and Gaza. I’ve been hearing from people who are unable to fall asleep because they can’t stop thinking about the images of destruction and grief, or who wake up and immediately start agonizing about the conflict or worrying about loved ones.

For some, the realities of what’s happening there provoke a crisis of faith. For others, those realities provoke profound anxiety. I too have been struggling to maintain my emotional and spiritual equilibrium in the face of the violence, destruction, and fear.

Maybe the first thing we can do is honor the reality of the struggle. A colleague just pointed me toward research showing that media exposure to trauma can create trauma in those who are watching, even from afar. The researchers did intensive studies, first after 9/11 and later after the Boston Marathon bombing, and their research showed that people who watched more than an hour of daily disaster-related tv (news programming and so on) experienced increases in post-traumatic stress symptoms and physical ailments.

The previous conventional wisdom had been that indirect media-based exposure to trauma is “not clinically relevant.” But these researchers found otherwise. After the Boston bombing they looked not only at how much TV people watched, but also print news and radio, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. They discovered that those who consumed a great deal of bombing-related media in the week after the bombings were six times more likely to report high acute stress than those were at the Boston Marathon itself.

I am not suggesting that those of us who are following stories out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza from afar are experiencing more trauma than those who are there. I recognize that from here we can only barely begin to grasp the terror and the trauma. My child is safely watching cartoons; other peoples’ children have been terrorized and killed. There is no comparison. What I am suggesting is that the media we consume has an impact in all four worlds: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and even physical.

It is easy to be drawn to the news or to social media because we care about what’s happening and we want to know more. But engaging with the news can have a profound emotional impact, and engaging with reports from our friends, family, colleagues, and loved ones even more so.

It’s important that the realities of this conflict be expressed. I know that it’s important to those who are experiencing the tragedy and trauma of war that their stories and images be shared with the world. I understand that and I honor it.

And that makes it extra-important that we who are watching from afar — whether via television news, or social media, or both — exercise the good judgement to take care of our own emotional and spiritual boundaries. (I wrote about this on my blog a few weeks ago, Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.) Overexposure to trauma, even from afar, can be damaging.

Rabbi Jay Michaelson recently wrote an essay for the Forward called 5 Ways To Turn Down the Social Media Flame. It’s a terrific essay and I recommend it to you — both because he does a beautiful job of exploring the entrenchment of different narratives, and because he suggests simple ways each of us can take control of our interactions. He shares the questions he asks himself before posting, forwarding, or amplifying news about Israel and the Palestinian territories.

What we take in, through reading or viewing, enters our hearts and minds. Some of us can manage that without experiencing trauma. Some of us are more emotionally porous and may be hurt by the repeated exposure. (And any given person may be at a different place on that spectrum at different times — maybe one day you’re able to manage what you’re reading or watching, and the next day it becomes too much.)

If watching the news or reading your Facebook feed leaves you struggling with crying jags, panic attacks, nightmares, anxiety which won’t let up, you are not alone, and what you’re feeling is real. Different people heal in different ways, but I’ve found that the best tools include disengaging for a time from social media and the news, and when the obsessive anxious thoughts recur, just noticing them, without judgement, and redirecting my thoughts in another direction. For me that usually means prayer, but use whatever works for you: music, exercise, thinking about an event you’re looking forward to, calling a loved one, whatever works.

Marinating in a perennial bath of horrific news can actually cause harm. Whatever obligations you feel to those who are frightened or suffering, you aren’t helping them by harming yourself. Please take good care of yourself — you are precious. And please know that I am here to listen anytime you want to talk about how you’re feeling — about Israel or about anything else.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel


Much of this material also appears in a longer post at Velveteen Rabbi: How news and social media can hurt us.

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