Self-care in times of war

With hellish events still unfolding, the best defense for our psyches may be to feel less – for now
A wounded Scottish soldier in World War I smiles as he hold up his battered helmet (Picture courtesy of the National Library of Scotland and Unsplash)

In the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, I found myself saying it still hasn’t hit me. What it was exactly, I wasn’t sure, but as the adage goes, I’d know it when I saw it. Over the course of that conflict I had seen and done things that no one should ever have to experience, yet the ideal and the real are two very separate things – and there I was, trying and failing, to process. 

Whatever “it” was finally hit me a few weeks later, in the middle of an army course. I had what can be called a “cathartic breakdown”. A breakdown because it was extremely painful, and cathartic because I learned more about myself. It was a formative experience, one that could allow me to live with that beast we call trauma. 

A decade later, it has not always been a peaceful coexistence. There were many twists and turns, moments of fear, and pain. The beast would rear its ugly head when I least expected it. And I had to be prepared to expect the unexpected. 

And yet that’s exactly what I did. As I began to understand my rival, I allowed him the space he demanded, to enter my consciousness when unavoidable, but I did not let him overtake me completely. I was able to preserve my well-being to the greatest extent possible.

This brings us to today. 

This hellish situation is not simple to process, but some incidents are easier than others. Surprisingly, being shot at was relatively straightforward; for me, such incidents were (thankfully) over before they really began. I barely had the time to think. Instead, I accepted the events as arbitrary and I simply moved on. In a broader sense active duty is a cop-out, since you can worry more about how your gear fits and less about the overall “matzav” (the situation). 

Coming home presents a new set of challenges. When you come home, the intensity of fight-or-flight gradually dissipates, leaving a vacuum for intrusive thoughts to enter. Such thoughts are quite understandable in the midst of a horrific war. One particular thought enters my mind. When will it “hit me” this time?

Since October 7th I have been in overdrive. At 10:00 am I kissed my family goodbye and at 10:30 I was on base. At the time I wasn’t scared, I was driven, and in a strange way grateful to feel able to contribute something in a moment of total national shock. For the next four months, I was doing, fighting, surviving. There was less time to think.

Then as soon as it started, it ended. Pack up my gear and drive home, for the last time (for now). Rejuvenate abroad, go back to work, go back to my wonderful family. It seems all is well. And it is. 

Except that it isn’t. All is most definitely not well. While I went home, many others did not. The hostages did not come home, and the remaining soldiers stayed in their bulletproof vests. Too many will not come home at all. In the meantime, the war goes on for the foreseeable future. Every time my phone pings I dread that it is another “announcement,” the sporadic news of another two families shattered here, a few more newly-created orphans there. The hostages are still trapped in hell, thousands are still refugees in their own country, the devastation continues, with no end in sight. 

Again I felt the dissonance, an emotional gap between my current emotions and what I thought I should be feeling, given the immense tragedy that had befallen us. To fully internalize such a bleak present would be intolerable.

And therein maybe lies the answer. 

If the grief, the sheer extent of the still-unfolding tragedy is so unbearable, then maybe we shouldn’t bear it – to some extent. We should not bury our heads in the sand – there is still a war to run, and it needs to be managed with courage and conviction to achieve a sustainable outcome for both Israelis and Palestinians. This isn’t to say either that we shouldn’t empathize with the plight of the bereaved families and those of the hostages. It is an immeasurably painful predicament, brought about by an unfathomable reality, and deserving of our full support. 

Given these unprecedented emotionally challenging times, perhaps we should erect boundaries and enact self-defense mechanisms for our psyche. We should remind ourselves that ruminating in boundless sadness is a disservice to ourselves, to those we love, and to those who sacrificed so much on our behalf. They sacrificed, and I fought, to allow us to live better lives, not miserable ones. The situation is desperately sad, and perhaps shielding ourselves from it is exactly what allows us to continue carrying the burden. 

The war is unfortunately far from over. Tragically, more agony is in store for all those who reside between the river and the sea. And even once the war ends, the pain and trauma remain. Our collective experience since October have set each and every one of us on an inevitable and long journey of processing and reminiscing. These paths will vary amongst individuals – some will be easier, and some laden with challenges. However, it is vital to keep in mind that we have agency in how we face our trauma and our emotions. We retain a measure of control over what we choose to process, and what we decide to leave for another time. What we decide to engage with, and just as importantly – what we don’t – is critical for our long-term well-being. 

Striking this balance will allow us to be more resilient as individuals and as a nation in the long run. As our leaders continue to fail us, we must be hyper-aware of the drains on our mental health and make sure we prioritize our overall well-being. Just like ending the war, it is a task that is far easier said than done.

About the Author
Originally from the United States, Natan came to Israel in 2010. He served in the IDF, and has worked in a variety of analytical positions, which is his attempt to contribute to the country that he loves. He has an insatiable curiosity, and he enjoys passionate but civil discourse. He is a devoted husband and father, and everything he does is for them. Follow him at @KohnNatan.
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