Sunday, October 15, 2023

Coping with the War in Israel: A 3 Prong Approach

Israel is engaged in a war with a barbaric enemy. Our hearts ache for our brothers and sisters in Israel. Many of us have increased anxiety and insomnia during this difficult time. How can we help our Israeli brethren while still maintaining our emotional health?

Here is a 3 prong approach:

1. Stay up to date in a healthy way.
2. Maintain your emotional health.
3. Help Israel.

1. Stay up to date in a healthy way. We all want to know the latest news in Israel, but moderation is key; do not keep checking the news throughout the day. Check the news during a specific time, preferably in the morning, or when you get home, but away from bedtime. When checking the news, keep it brief and do not dwell on it. Avoid news sources that feature traumatic videos or images. (Many will benefit by checking the news even less often. In that case, ask a family member or friend to keep you updated when there’s good news or any news you need to know.)

2. Maintain your emotional health. You are better able to help Israel and take care of yourself and your family if you stay emotionally healthy. The number one thing you can do for your emotional health during this time is to limit your exposure to news and other sources of distressing reports from the war. The more anxious you feel, the more you need to set limits to protect your emotional health. Reading and especially viewing upsetting news activates your sympathetic nervous system and puts your body into fight or flight mode. An upregulated nervous system can be life saving when you need to fight an enemy or run away. But chronic activation of the nervous system depletes the body.

It is healthy to spend some time talking and thinking about what is going on in Israel. When you do this, allow yourself to feel your emotions and accept whatever you are feeling. Crying is not a sign of weakness and not crying is not a sign of callousness. The rest of the day, keep busy with productive activities and stay focused on what needs to get done. When you find your mind worrying about what is going on in Israel, say a short tefillah and then bring your focus back to the task at hand.

To the extent you are able, volunteer and get involved in acts of kindness, both locally and for those in Israel. Often during war and trauma, we feel helpless. The side benefit of doing acts of kindness is that you will feel empowered by making a difference in the lives of others.

To replenish your emotional reserves, do activities that reduce stress: exercise regularly, both aerobic and muscle strengthening. Go for daily walks. Walking in nature is especially calming. It is helpful to talk to friends and family about the stresses in your life. Especially those who don’t have sufficient social support, write daily in a journal about your challenges and how you are feeling. Also keep a gratitude journal where you write down a few things each day you are grateful for and why. Try to bring up feelings of gratitude as you write about each one.

Here are two breathing techniques that can help calm the sympathetic nervous system. The first one is called the physiologic sigh. This breathing technique was popularized by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman. It involves two inhales followed by an extended exhale. Take in a regular inhale through the nose and then inhale again to get in even more air. Then slowly exhale through the mouth with a sigh as the air effortlessly leaves your lungs. As you exhale and sigh, allow your body to let go of tension. Throughout the day, whenever you feel stressed or irritable (and may say something you later regret), try 1-3 rounds of this breathing technique.

The second technique is a form of meditation called breath counting. Breathing calmly and easily, mentally count after each exhale, starting from one and going up to ten and then back to one. If you lose count, start again from 1. Do this for 5-20 minutes once or twice a day. The more you meditate, the better you will get at staying focused on your breathing and allowing your body to shift into a state of relaxation and healing. Try this technique for at least 3 days and see if you find it beneficial. 

Key for emotional health is sufficient sleep. Think about what has helped your sleep in the past. Have a winddown routine, e.g., prayer, reading a light book, writing in a journal, listening to calming music, dimming the lights, shutting off your computer and phone, drinking a hot cup of tea/milk or taking a warm bath or shower.

If you still have trouble sleeping, there are other techniques that may be helpful as well as dietary supplements or speaking to your doctor. 

Avoid the trap of self-medicating through food, alcohol and other substances. While they may provide short-term relief, they create additional problems.

There is no shame in asking for help. If you find your emotional health deteriorating or that you are engaging in unhealthy self-soothing behaviors, make an appointment with a mental health professional.

Periodically, check in with yourself and your loved ones. How are you feeling? How are you sleeping? Are you able to stay focused on daily tasks? If any of these are issues, make a plan to address it.

3. Help Israel. We can help materially, politically and spiritually. Materially, donate to organizations that are helping Israelis during this difficult time. Be as generous as you can. Communities are also organizing drives to send items to Israel. If you are active on social media, use that to help educate people about the struggle Israel is facing as well as the worldwide increase in antisemitism. Support Israel politically by contacting your politicians and letting them know that you stand with Israel. An easy way to do that is through AIPAC using the link here

6 ways to help Israel spiritually:

1. Increase your Torah study (find an author or podcast on Jewish thought that you like and read or listen to them daily, even if only for a few minutes).

2. Recite Psalms (there are a number of great English translations to help you understand what you are saying).

3. Look for opportunities to do acts of kindness. For example, call someone up who does not have much social support and see how they are doing, e.g., someone living alone or a single parent. Show you care and be a listening ear.

4. Pick one mitzvah to strengthen your observance of or to start observing, at least for the duration of the war.

5. Be extra careful to avoid gossip (lashon hara).

6. Is there anyone you have mistreated emotionally or financially? Is there anyone from whom you are estranged and bear at least some responsibility for that? Now is the time to reach out and try, when appropriate, to repair the relationship and to make amends for past mistakes.

These are unprecedented times. We cannot allow ourselves to live through this crisis and not be changed by it.

Times of war can help you get your priorities straight; to realize what is truly important in life and what are just distractions. Times of war can help you tap into your talents and abilities to help others and achieve your unique personal greatness.

God wants us to live refined, elevated lives. We saw the barbaric acts of those who are the polar opposite of refined living. That must spur us to live even more elevated lives: more Torah, more prayer, more kindness!

What will you do, at least for the duration of the war, as a merit for the Jewish People?