“In war, truth is the first casualty.” (Aeschylus)
The ongoing tragedy of the recent conflict in the Middle East has provided us with a first-hand glimpse into the horrors of war. Despite not being combatants or residents in the war zone, we’ve all been virtually transported, via our screens, to one of the most fiercely contested regions on the planet, Palestine.
Since the start of the war, I found myself regularly checking various social media platforms to stay abreast of the evolving situation. From Twitter to YouTube to TikTok to various news media outlets, both online and in print I was spending hours combing through various reports trying to understand the unfolding tragedy.
Images of bloodied, injured, dead, and dismembered people of all ages excavated new ravines in the deepest recesses of my brain. I felt the tide of tears rising steadily and engulfing my heart. So much human suffering; so helpless! I dragged myself to work in a dissociative fugue displaying my usual medical professional façade of invulnerability, but it was not to last…
The pervasive aura of moral decay exhibited, and the harrowing scenes of death and devastation we’re encountering via social media is having a profound impact on our emotional and psychological well-being. The explicit imagery of injured and dismembered people and their pets, has the potential to significantly affect our mental health.
War empathy can come at a price. It is widely recognized that even when shielded from the bombs, bullets, and chemical munitions, secondary witnessing of distressing imagery can be traumatic.
Prolonged and continuous exposure increases the risk of acute stress reactions and the development of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and the exacerbation of pre-existing psychiatric disorders.
The negative impact of viewing traumatic imagery is dose related and compounded if the user identifies with the sociocultural and religious identities of the victims.
Social media use of over four hours a day (though a single video may also suffice) has been associated with vicarious trauma; its impact can be far reaching and long lasting.
Social media use and exposure in a time of war must however be balanced with the important need for continued advocacy, and to help contextualise the suffering adding meaning and purpose.
There are several methods to help minimise this risk. But before we delve into that, it is prudent to mention that no one is immune to these negative effects, and everyone exposed will be at risk to some degree of deteriorating mental health, in keeping with personal vulnerabilities, premorbid functioning and exposure duration.
Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that individuals with pre-existing psychiatric conditions, neurotic personality traits, female sex and the young are at particular risk. So, what can we do to mitigate some of these risks individually and collectively?
It is important to consider changing the type of viewing method to the media you are exposed to. Placing a time-limit, and changing from visual to audio, or audio to print may offer some benefit in reducing traumatic imagery exposure.
It is important to also note the emotional contagion effect of shared views and comments on social media. Limiting our cognitive media load in no way detracts from the sense of commitment individuals may feel to remain well informed and up to date with the latest horrors of war, and their need to advocate.
Education has been found to be a protective factor. Therefore, accessing knowledge pertaining to the theological and metaphysical rationale of suffering and tragedy can offer a means of alleviating some of the emotional impacts associated with vicarious trauma.
One of the ultimate purposes for the calamities and suffering we’re afflicted with, is to humble and redirect us back to God (Surah al-Aʿrāf:94). In other words, utilising the metaphysical tension that builds within us from being exposed to such atrocities and handing it over to God to bear (tafwīḍ), as our fragile souls are unable to.
Therefore, metacognitive optimisation through introspection and retreating to an inner residence serves to ground us by allowing us to fortify our mental fragilities, determine resilience strategies and delegate our suffering to God seeking counsel and assistance.
Moreover, spiritual fortitude can be enhanced through increased engagement with religious seminaries, the recitation of sacred texts, fasting, maintaining regular night vigils, and the repetition of liturgical prayers.
From a community perspective, collective introspection can lead to a form of communal kenosis. Finding solace in the presence of spiritually attuned companions, with whom one can debrief, connect, exchange insights, is a powerful way to bolster individual resilience and offers a protective buffer against vicariously experienced trauma.
It also encourages collective prayer, charity, and advocacy all of which contribute to a sense of achievement and contribution helping to challenge the sense of helplessness and powerlessness that is endemic due to the scale of suffering in these crises.
After thorough introspection, peer discussion and spiritual upskilling, it is important to externalise these negative emotions and rid yourself of their usurping impact on mind and body.
Exercise’s place in improving our mental health is well established and regularly prescribed. Consistency, duration, and intensity are important considerations to have in mind when beginning your physical health journey.
Any form of exercise would suffice- though higher intensity exercise seems to offer greater catharsis. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week, with at least two higher intensity or muscle resistance sessions. Consider the following exercises:
- Archery/ Range shooting
- Horseback riding
- Fast walking
- Weightlifting/High Intensity Interval Training
Vicarious trauma through social media exposure predisposes us to real and potentially long-lasting mental health conditions. Solution focused strategies exist- and include, rekindling and strengthening our spiritual bond with God, restabilising kinship ties and physical conditioning.
Ultimately this will allow us to hold onto the Rope of hope more firmly and with greater certainty.
And hold firmly to the Rope of Allah all together and do not become divided (Surah Al Imran: 103)
وَٱعْتَصِمُوا۟ بِحَبْلِ ٱللَّهِ جميعا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا۟ ۚ
- Limit your exposure time on social media.
- Change the way your exposed to news
- Continue to advocate through education, charity and prayers.
- Reach out to friends and family and strengthen ties of kinship.
- Empower yourself through education.
- Renew and fortify your connection with God.