Overwhelmed by the war in Israel? Here’s how to protect your mental health.

Courage, love and empathy flow through the same areas of the brain as fear. That’s why compassion for the victims and their families and courage are the best responses.


After Sept. 11, 2001, the public psyche in the United States was punctured, our nation had been attacked on the mainland unlike ever before, and many Americans overpersonalized the new risk and felt unsafe.

People, even in the days before social media, attached voyeuristically to the news, and cycles of worry resulted that interfered with sleep and work. I believe the outsized fear of health risks that followed (anthrax, smallpox, West Nile virus, SARS) were tied directly to Americans’ newfound vulnerability. 

I also pointed out then that, despite our worries, we still lived in a much safer environment than Israel, a country with narrow borders surviving under the constant threats of invasion, rocket fire and suicide bombing. In Israel, these regular dangers were studied and found to increase risks of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in lower-income areas of southern Israel.

Yet, Israelis shouldered on, and visitors (including me), were reassured by the relative calm, business as usual, a regular police and military presence, religious faith and beautiful vistas. Israel has always been much tougher and more resilient than we have been in America.

Until now.

Videos of mutilated bodies circulated by Hamas and the discovery of decapitated bodies, which according the Jerusalem Post included babies, have shaken Israel and the world to its core. A strong and growing military response has started to put salve on the wound as the borders have been re-secured and Gaza is under military assault.

Inhumanity and depravity of atrocities committed by Hamas

Even so, the wound is deep, and for Israelis it might never fully heal. They might never feel that they are fully safe again.

For the rest of us, the anxiety drawn from savagery permeates us with no treatment in sight, deteriorating into cycles of worry and anxiety as the Middle East further destabilizes.

As a Jew, I have always resisted any comparisons to the incomparable suffering and dehumanization of the Holocaust. But the fact is that the atrocities committed by Hamas this month, the inhumanity and depravity, are reminiscent of the Holocaust, although on a much smaller scale. 

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What to do? How to heal? Strong emotions like fear involve the prefrontal cortex and amygdala of the brain. This fear overrides reason, but it turns out that other strong emotions – including courage, love and empathy – also flow through the same area. This is why compassion for the victims and for the families who have lost loved ones is the best response, as is courage.

For parents, it is best that you show courage, compassion and love to your children while answering their questions.

Look to leaders who have the strength to guide us

It also is helpful at a time like this to continue your daily routine with work and exercise and try to divert yourself from worry with activities that are meaningful and make you laugh.

Volunteering to help if you have useful skills or making donations toward the region’s recovery are also therapeutic actions to take.

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Perhaps most important during a time such as this is that we can look to leaders who have the strength to guide us. Whatever you think of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu politically, he is such a leader − at least for now. He knows that the main tool of terrorists is fear, not bombs, and he won’t succumb to it.

It is good to remember that he and his brother Yoni, who was killed in the 1976 raid to rescue 105 Jewish hostages held by Palestinian terrorists in Uganda, were leaders in the top commando unit in Israel (Sayeret Matkal). One of the best special operations units in the world, its purpose is to seek out and destroy enemies on their territory.

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I don’t believe that “Bibi” will negotiate. Terrorists prey on weakness. He will use force and skill to seek out and destroy Hamas. If he succeeds, it will help start to heal the psychic wounds. 

Israel standing up for itself should inspire courage, not just throughout Israel but anywhere in the world where political agendas are not obfuscating the truth. Courage and compassion will get us all through.

Dr. Marc Siegel, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at New York University’s Langone Health. His latest book is “COVID: The Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.” Follow him on X, formerly Twitter: @DrMarcSiegel

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