Although many of us are geographically distant from the conflict in the Middle East, the cycle of content across T.V., radio, online and on social media, has brought many of us closer to the distressing situation on the ground.
No matter how compelled we might feel to immerse ourselves in the war over various media, it’s important to recognise that this continuous exposure to extreme content can take a toll on all of us, including our children.
In this blog post, our mental health experts here at Vita Health Group explain the psychological toll of exposure to conflict and how to take care of our own, and our family’s, mental health, whilst staying informed.
How does exposure to conflict impact mental health?
The effects of a traumatic event can be contagious, in that its impact can spread far beyond the initial victims, and the emotional toll of witnessing the suffering of others – even from a distance – can significantly impact our mental health.
Being constantly barraged with distressing content can contribute to heightened fear, stress, anxiety and even symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Visual content, more so than something you hear or read, can become intrusive and we may struggle to get what we’ve seen out of our minds.
It’s important to understand that exposure to conflict-related news can be akin to secondary trauma. Even though we are not physically exposed to harm, the immersive sensory experience we experience becomes associated with real trauma.
How does the media impact the trauma experience?
The media plays a pivotal role in shaping public perceptions and influencing emotional responses. People share stories of war for many reasons, such as to detail first-hand accounts or to expose atrocities, but also to spread propaganda and misinformation.
Social media algorithms can also drive people to extreme content – even those who are not actively looking for it – making it harder to protect ourselves, and our families, from the distressing footage.
Are some people more vulnerable than others?
People who are in closer proximity to the events, such as those whose family members, friends or colleagues are caught up in the conflict on the ground, are more vulnerable to developing an acute stress reaction or even PTSD.
Conflict can generate extremely polarised opinions. Some people may experience bullying, harassment or discrimination because of their religion or race. This can exacerbate mental health challenges for individuals already grappling with the complexity of conflict.
In addition, people who have a prior mental health issue, such as an anxiety or mood disorder, and people who have experienced any kind of trauma in the past, may be more vulnerable.
How to take care of your mental health whilst keeping informed
There are a number of coping mechanisms you can use to manage your own and your family’s mental health during times of conflict:
1. Acknowledge the mental health impact of war
Understanding how war can impact our mental health is the first step toward breaking a negative thought cycle and fostering resilience..
2. Limit your exposure to the media
Restrict yours and your family’s exposure to the news and social media. Stay informed by choosing one or two trusted news outlets but limit the time you spend watching the news. Don’t have the news playing on your T.V. or radio all day – this will only increase your exposure to distressing content.
3. Avoid the news at bedtime
Try to avoid the news before bedtime because it may trigger negative emotions and prevent you from sleeping. Not getting enough sleep could make you more anxious the following day.
4. Do not shutdown conversations with children
It’s really important to talk to your children about the conflict in an age-appropriate way. Keeping your children in the dark or dismissing their feelings may exacerbate any existing mental health challenges. Acknowledge that our children may be hearing different viewpoints and stories from their peers at school, therefore it’s important that you are the trusted source and take ownership of the conversation.
5. Engage in activities that promote wellbeing
Put time aside to do the things that make you feel better. That could be seeing friends and family, doing exercise or sport, or helping others. Any activity that gives you space from negative thought patterns can be a great antidote.
6. Know that you are not alone
Seek support from the friends, family and like-minded community you know will help soothe your mind. Try to avoid people who tend to only see the negative side and catastrophise situations.
If you need additional help with your mental health, reach out to a mental health professional. You can self-refer to our team here at Vita Health Group. In partnership with the NHS, we provide Talking Therapy services to support in various districts throughout the UK.