What to do with the feelings distressing Israel-Gaza coverage ignites

What to do with the feelings distressing Israel-Gaza coverage ignites
  • PublishedJune 8, 2024

It’s tempting to look away when we see distressing news coverage or content on social media.

Reporting of the conflict between Israel and Gaza in the past eight months has been graphic and constant.

In the past week, many of our Instagram feeds were filled with footage of Palestinians in Rafah burned alive in their tents following an Israeli air strike and fire.

“People may shut down and engage in avoidant behaviour depending on what the content is, and disengage due to not knowing what they can do to help or change what has occurred,” says Carly Dober, a psychologist based in Naarm/Melbourne, and director of the Australia Association of Psychologists.

She says it can be difficult to know how to manage uncomfortable emotions when we feel powerless and there “does not seem to be a tangible activity” to engage in that would reduce our level of distress.

Mobilising those feelings to become more active in issues you care about, rather than being “passive observers”, is one way to empower ourselves, she says.

And while striking a balance between moderating our exposure and staying informed about the world around us is important, Ms Dober says learning to sit with discomfort can lead to growth and resilience.

How seeing distressing content can impact us

There can be consequences to being exposed to violence, especially when that exposure becomes chronic and the person viewing it is younger in age, explains Ms Dober.

She says people may feel like they “can’t make sense of the world” or that the “world isn’t safe”.

“People of all ages may experience feelings of horror, guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety, shame, anger, confusion, shock, and disturbance.”

Georgia Grace, a somatic therapist based in Gadigal Country/Sydney, says feeling distressed is a “rational and reasonable” response to witnessing disturbing imagery.

She says some people may experience a “full body” response, where their distress shows up in physical ways, such as impacted sleep and digestive issues.

Ms Dober says it’s important to take care of ourselves, but also notes that negative feelings aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Humans shouldn’t ever really strive to be desensitised to mass-scale human suffering. And feeling upset because you are bearing witness to pain is also a healthy sign that your humanity is still intact.”

She says some “healthy guardrails” might include simple steps like turning off notifications, and having tech-free periods throughout your day.

“It’s unlikely to be helpful to be online hours at a time.”

Building resilience

The temptation to look away is a form of “emotional control”, explains Ms Dober, because difficult feelings are by nature “difficult to feel”.

“It’s important to know that avoidance works well sometimes; however, there are costs to engaging in avoidant behaviour.

“Often, the more we try to avoid, the stronger the need to avoid gets.”

Ms Dober says learning to sit with discomfort is “one of the most beneficial life skills that you can develop and practise”.

“To be able to cope with this stress and unhappiness, particularly when circumstances are beyond our control, can support our mental health and wellbeing.”

How can you ‘show up’?

Considering how you can make a difference to the issue you are feeling connected to can be helpful, says Ms Dober.

“Connect with local community members who might be engaged with this issue, and engage in volunteer work that might help you to participate in community and give back,” she says.

three women chatting and smiling at computer desk
Connecting with community is a form of self-care.(Pexels)

“If you are in the position to … [you can] give money to organisations that work directly with the group or issue.”

She says encouraging your loved ones to get involved, and writing to members of parliament about why the matter means a lot to you, are other examples of ways to give your time and energy.

Ms Grace says we should identify our capacity to contribute and what that looks like for each of us, such as “using your voice”.

“Examine what we can and can’t do — focus on how we can show up. That might be: ‘What are three things I can do this week?'”

Self-care (that’s not about bubble baths)

Self-care means different things to people. Ms Grace says leaning into community can be an effective form of self-care for some.

“When I think about community care, it is self-care.

“When I am showing up in community, I am seeing myself as part of a larger group of people, I’m seeing I’m not alone.

“I am able to co-regulate with other human beings and feel safe and seen and supported.”

She says for others, it might be reaching out to a friend and going for a walk.

Ms Dober says it’s helpful to understand that the difficult emotions you might be experiencing from seeing upsetting news will pass in time, and knowing ways to help complete emotions’ “natural cycle”, such as crying to release self-soothing chemicals.

“If you are stressed or anxious, physical movements that gets your heart rate up can support those emotions to complete their cycles.”

If you’re finding it very difficult to manage, Ms Dober suggests engaging a mental health professional like a psychologist for support.


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