Editors note: We are happy to welcome Josh Frank to our Family Link edition. He plans to share insights into different mental health issues, and some coping strategies he uses in his practice.
On October 7 and the weeks that have followed, we, as a nation, have experienced a series of horrific traumas and losses. The extent of these are too much to put into words, and words cannot do justice to their true impact. We have been deeply and uniquely affected. Many of us have family and friends in Israel, some of whom are currently fighting for their lives. We’ve experienced a whirlwind of emotions these past months that most of us have never felt before. Experiencing all this while living so far from Israel puts us in a unique and often confusing space. I’d like to highlight what I believe are important concepts related to our mental health during this period, and share some suggestions which may help us manage our emotions during these turbulent times.
Secondary Trauma Is Real
When we read, watch or hear about the trauma experienced by others, our own stress response system becomes activated. We go into the same “fight or flight” response that our minds utilize when we ourselves are in danger. This can lead to what is called “secondary trauma.” Secondary trauma symptoms can look just like those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With the enormous amount of accessible media today, becoming traumatized by horrific and brutal content is very possible. As much as we view this content out of genuine concern for our brothers and sisters, we need to recognize when we have been overexposed, and sometimes prevent it altogether. Parents should be especially cautious of what their children have access to in relation to viewing graphic or disturbing content. I recommend setting personal limits on social media and screen time, as well as monitoring how news and media are impacting our emotional health.
It’s OK to Not Feel OK
During a crisis, it’s completely normal to not feel like our usual selves. Our minds may be flooded with all kinds of emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness, pain, grief, anger and guilt. These may come and go, persist, or vary in strength. Some of these may even conflict with each other. For example, experiencing the joy of a job promotion while feeling sadness about the precious lives we’ve lost. We may be finding it hard to focus on daily responsibilities and activities as well. It is so important to understand and accept that these are all normal; we don’t need to fight a negative feeling or choose between two conflicting ones. A crisis by definition is a time when life isn’t “normal,” and the many things we think and feel are allowed and OK. A helpful outlook to have at a time like this is that now, even more than usual, we should engage in self-care practices such as exercise, mindfulness and journaling to help lighten the load we are experiencing.
Everyone Experiences Crises Differently
One of the core principles of trauma is that no two people experience an event or situation the same way. What is frightening or triggering for one individual may have little emotional impact on the next. This principle applies to situations of all kinds, and the crisis in Israel is no different. It’s important for us to understand this because we are constantly interacting with individuals who are being impacted. Our family, friends, neighbors, fellow congregants and co-workers each have their own relationship to this crisis, and way of reacting to it. One person may be highly outspoken and passionate, while another reserved and timid, and yet another more humorous or sarcastic. Some people have responded with a drive to act and contribute however they can, while others are frozen in place from overwhelming feelings of confusion. We can utilize the skill of empathy (putting ourselves in another’s shoes) to better understand the experience of others at a time like this, even though we may not fully understand their way of coping. Respecting each other’s process and creating a safe environment for individuals to uniquely manage will be a key facilitator to our healing as a community.
Utilize Your Support System
As mentioned previously, a crisis is not a “usual” time. We are experiencing stronger, more difficult emotions and are being challenged in ways we are not necessarily used to. This makes the need for connection and support even greater. During this crisis, it is vital that we identify who our people are, the ones who love us and show up for us unconditionally. A support system is not limited to any specific kind of relationship, as long as we feel safe and supported. For some, that includes meeting with a mental health professional or attending a support group. These are the people we need to keep close to us during our time of need. Don’t hesitate to reach out and share with them how you’re feeling. There is no need to be going through a time like this alone. Our burden instantly becomes lighter when we share it with someone than it is if we bear it on our own.
The crisis Israel faces, and by extension the one we are facing, is both a physical and an emotional one. I hope that some of these ideas resonate and spark a greater awareness of our mental well-being in these times.
I wish everyone the strength to care for themselves lovingly during this challenging period.
Josh Frank, LMSW, is a psychotherapist who works with clients experiencing anxiety and related issues. Josh and his wife, Sarah, are residents of Teaneck. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram @joshfranklmsw for more mental health content.