For people who have family, friends or roots in Israel or the Gaza Strip but don’t live there themselves, it’s been almost impossible to grapple with the events of the past week while continuing to go about daily life.
The majority of casualties in the Israel-Hamas war thus far have been civilians. For people in the U.S. with loved ones or roots in the region, the worry, anxiety and guilt over being relatively safe in the States is more present than ever, said Nikita Fernandes, a therapist in New York City.
As an immigrant from India, Fernandes said she’s all too familiar with that combination of feelings whenever she reads upsetting news reports about her country.
“When tragedy strikes your homeland and you’re away from home, you are allowed to feel frightened, shocked and angry at the same time, and you can hold all of these emotions with compassion,” she told HuffPost. “You have to be gentle with yourself.”
Moments like this often tap into intergenerational trauma. Studies have shown that the trauma of strife in your homeland can effectively be passed down from one generation to the next, taking a toll on a person’s mental health and well-being.
“Through my own lived experiences and the lived experiences of my loved ones, I have learned that it’s OK and normal to feel a loss of control when we are away from our homeland in the face of tragedy,” Fernandes said.
Below, Fernandes and other mental health practitioners share advice on how to handle yourself with care if you belong to any of the affected diasporas.
Don’t tell yourself there’s a right or wrong way to feel right now.
Give yourself permission to experience every feeling you have to process right now, even if what you are feeling is confusing and you can’t make sense of it, said Sodah Minty, a psychologist and activist who was born in apartheid South Africa.
“When we are experiencing trauma, we cannot predict what we will feel or how we, or the world, will react,” Minty said. “Permission to accept uncertainty goes against our nature ― we are used to planning, anticipating, getting ahead, preventing uncertainty ― but we must accept a lack of control over what happens outside of our reach.”
Guilt, anxiety and grief mean that you care deeply, said Akua Boateng, a psychotherapist in private practice in South Philadelphia. Let these feelings be with you.
“This is your way to offer support from afar,” Boateng explained. “Acknowledge they are a part of your deep compassion for your home and family.”
“Weep, feel, light a candle in prayer, express your care to loved ones, and let your loving action be how you hold hope and honor for them in their time of need,” she said.
If you have family in the affected regions, establish what facts you know.
Our bodies process internal conflict and extreme stress best in small bites. So take a moment to gather the facts about what is known about the state of your relatives and home, Boateng said.
“For example, the location of family members, points of contact on the ground and abroad, and safe zones you can refer to if you lose contact for some reason,” she said. “It can be helpful to form a collective of the family outside of the area to discuss updates and support each other.”
Find community where you are.
Nneka Osueke, a Black American therapist currently living in Thailand, knows how unsettling it can be when there’s conflict in your homeland and you’re far away.
“With all the wars, police shootings, and economic and political setbacks in the U.S., I absolutely have felt all kinds of emotions while living abroad,” she said.
Even in calmer times, Osueke said, she sometimes feels guilt about the relative ease of her life abroad, especially compared to the hustle of American life.
“At times, I’ve felt guilty for my life here,” she said. “It’s almost like I’d found a way out and didn’t take people with me. Then the grief and anxiety set in when I remember lots of people from different diaspora communities are tied to their lives in the U.S., or don’t feel they have the privilege to make the decision to leave.”
When there’s strife in the U.S. ― the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the spring of 2020, for instance ― Osueke leans heavily into her American community abroad.
“It’s important to find community where you are, so you can dialogue freely about the anger and grief you feel,” she said. “Maybe it’s others with similar backgrounds and allies who know how to properly hold space for you in these times.”
Minty, the psychologist, also emphasized the importance of community, whether you’re leaning into your family more or finding support online. (Maybe you find a private Facebook group for the diaspora, or a Reddit forum where people are sharing your same fears and validating your feelings.)
“Loneliness is often part of an international or immigrant identity anyway,” she explained. “Try not to be alone, even if you are with someone (or an animal or with nature) in silence. We are social beings and need the presence of others in times of uncertainty and grief.”
Take care of your body.
During stressful times, most people leave their body to intellectually problem-solve. But your body is the best guide during extreme stress, Boateng said.
“Increase activities that provide recovery and reprieve to the nervous system,” she said. “Utilize breathwork, aromatherapy ― eucalyptus oil in a steam shower, for instance — sleep, take PTO, extra hugs and cuddles ― for the oxytocin support ― and talk it through with a therapist or friend.”
Channel feelings of anger and helplessness into advocacy.
Kept inside, anger can become emotional poison. Repressed anger can also spill over to your personal life, damaging those close to you in ways you didn’t intend, said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
“That’s why it’s best to acknowledge anger as it relates to injustice, and channel that emotion into doing something to help in some way, however small,” she said. “That could mean writing a letter to a government official, fundraising or engaging in humanitarian efforts. Whatever makes sense to you.”
Establish boundaries and be mindful of triggers.
Social media can offer a way to find out what’s happening ― sometimes, anyway ― but it’s easy to start doomscrolling when you’re feeling out of control. If you need to curtail your online reading right now or take a full social media break, don’t think twice about it, Fernandes said.
“It’s important to understand what triggers emotions of sadness, anger, guilt and hopelessness, and have boundaries in place about how often we use social media if we are being constantly triggered by news and people’s opinions,” she said.