Our Emotional Reactions to War -- Jerilyn Ross -- 03/20/03

Last Editorial Review: 12/1/2004

By Jerilyn Ross
WebMD Live Events Transcript

How does the conflict with Iraq make you feel? Fearful? Anxious? Angry? All of the above? How do you cope with the extreme emotions that come from war? We talked about the mix of intense feelings associated with war, when Jerilyn Ross, author of Triumph Over Fear, was our guest.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Hello, Jerilyn. Welcome back to WebMD Live. Let's get to our first question.

Member: Ms. Ross, I find myself glued to the television set and feeling very anxious lately. It's almost paralyzing -- but I don't know how to break out of it.

Ross: I think most of us right now, are very drawn to the news, whether TV, radio, or newspaper, and it's normal to feel that pull. But when it reaches the point where you literally can't pull yourself away, or it's interfering with carrying on your normal daily functions, you need to take action to limit the time that you're watching the news. I generally recommend to people that they give themselves a certain amount of time to watch the news, enough so they have information that they need to have, but once you've watched the news, that you go back to what your normal daily routine is. In particular, I recommend that people not watch the news as the last thing before they go to bed. If they want to watch late night news, but make sure after that that you read a book or put on a funny movie so that you don't go to sleep with your mind racing.

Member: The trouble is, I work in the media, so it's harder for me to get away from the news.

Ross: That is a real problem. I have a number of patients who work in the media, and they talk to me about how difficult it is because as much information as we the public get, they're getting 10 times the amount of information. Knowledge is very hard, and there's no easy answer, but it is very important to build into your life mandatory breaks from the media. When you're off the job at night and you come home, be sure to follow the media to get as much information as you need to do your job, but then be sure, just like a doctor has to, that when you come home, you must be able to be involved with your family and friends as much as you can. Although it's difficult, leave the rest of it to the time you're in the office.

Member: Don't we have to put it in perspective? I tune into the news learn what's up and then go to sitcoms.

Ross: I think that's great. I encourage people to do that because it gives our mind a much needed rest. When we are bombarded with negative information continuously as we have been in recent days I think we can learn a great deal from comments like yours, and most important, people should not feel guilty about doing exactly that. The same way I think people should be sure to take time to exercise, go to the movies, or just have a quiet family dinner. The more we can continue on with our normal day to day activities, the better we'll feel about ourselves and the more strength we'll have to deal with our emotions.

Member: I avoided the news for the past few weeks because I knew there was nothing I could do about the wheels that were turning. But now I have a need to know. It's hard to stay away from the news. How much is too much?

Ross: I think the answer to that is such an individual thing. For most people, we have to understand that we don't have control over what's happening, but we do have control over how we spend the time in our lives. It's important for us to control what we can control, and pay enough attention to things we can't control, to keep us out of harm's way but not let it consume us.

For the average person, I think watching the news in the morning and at the end of the day, perhaps after dinner, and being alert to any local news is important, but it's not necessary to spend hours in front of the television or to read every single word in the newspaper. Watch the news enough to have the information that you need, then get on with your life.

Member: How about those who live alone and have no support?

Ross: If ever there was a time to reach out to people, this is it, particularly for people who live alone, whether it's a next-door neighbor that you're not a great friend with but who is nearby, someone at work, or calling a friend you haven't seen in a while. It might mean joining a community group, whether religious or service group, something that gives you a sense of getting some either spiritual or social fulfillment and at the same time allows you to be around other people. That is really important right now.

Oftentimes, when people live alone they get complacent and don't reach out to others as much as they'd like to or should. This is the time to do it. Call someone you haven't spoken to, email someone you haven't been in touch with for a while, invite a friend to dinner or to a movie. Be proactive about being with people rather than reactive, just waiting for people to call.

Member: Is it normal to sort of be on edge with all this and have our emotional ganglia out there?

Ross: Absolutely. I worry more about people that this just doesn't seem to affect at all. It's normal right now for people to feel many different kinds of anxiety symptoms, including:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Muscle tension
  • Stomach knots
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Feelings of sadness and fear

These are normal reactions to a frightening, unpredictable situation such as we have going on in our country right now. Although we can't stop ourselves from feeling anxiety, there are things we can do to help at least keep symptoms under control. That gets back to the importance of making sure one gets a full night's sleep, eating properly throughout the day, exercising, and if possible, doing some kind of relaxation training such as yoga or meditation.

Member: I am quite concerned about the safety of a young friend of the family who has been deployed. My daughter is also very concerned -- they graduated from high school together three years ago. What can I say or do to help her (and me)?

Ross: I would encourage you to talk about what you're feeling and thinking, and to know that your anxiety is normal and appropriate. Although you can't be reassured that everything will be OK, because we don't know that, you can be assured that our government is doing everything they can to limit the number of casualties. Acknowledge that it's normal and do whatever you can.

Some people feel good about doing volunteer work. Perhaps being in touch with his family and offering to be there if they need helping out, errands done, or something that makes you feel like you are one step closer to the person you're worrying about. It helps to know that we are being comforting to the people that are suffering even more than we are.

Member: I feel so angry and depressed. I'm angry with the president for starting the war and very depressed at the thought of the children who will inevitably be killed or injured -- it always happens in a war. I find I'm having a hard time functioning. I can't stop watching the war news and yet I feel that a lot of it is lies put out by the government. Aside from turning off the TV (which I have just done), what can I do? Even if I'm not watching the news, the children are still being bombed.

Ross: I think one of the things about being a citizen of the United States is that we have a right to assert our opinions and feelings. You may find some local anti-war groups that perhaps would help give you a forum to express what you're feeling. I'm glad you turned the TV off, because it would be better to spend your time doing things for your family or community where you have some control.

Member: It would be nice to be able to talk to older people who lived through other tough wars and find out how they handled the anxiety and the not knowing.

Ross: I agree. I think we have a lot to learn from people, particularly older people who lived through WWII or Vietnam or the earlier Gulf War. The amazing thing about human beings is that we're a lot more resilient than we sometimes think we are when we are going through a difficult experience. When we're in the middle of something awful, and there are so many unanswered questions, our minds often play out the worst-case scenario. So having older people to turn to and share their knowledge and wisdom of how they got through similar difficult experiences would be extremely valuable.

Member: Do you think these stresses are similar to those experienced by someone just diagnosed with a life-threatening illness?

Ross: In some ways, yes. It depends on the nature of the illness. Sometimes when someone is given such a diagnosis, you're also given information about what they can do to either decrease the threat, whether it's taking medicine, changing the lifestyle, etc. That often becomes a source of comfort to the person because they feel they have some control.

But I also think when someone is given a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, for most people it is more difficult because there's no way of getting away from it. They can't turn off the TV or shut the newspaper. But if they feel they have the sense of control that there are things they can do to alter the course of that illness, that's a tremendous help in alleviating the anxiety.

In the case of what's going on right now in the world, what keeps most people's anxiety so high is the fact that they feel they do not have control, and that there is nothing they can do to change the course of action.

Member: Emotions seem to be running pretty high around here. Some think Bush is doing God's work and others think he is evil incarnate. It is way beyond political beliefs. How can you carry on a civil discourse with co-workers when everyone seems to have such a strong emotional reaction to this war?

Ross: I think that that's what makes us wonderful as human beings, and proud to be living in this country, where we have the freedom to feel and express whatever it is that we're thinking and feeling. And I think it's very important, particularly, in a time like this, for us to respect the fact that not everybody feels like we do, and to encourage, rather than discourage people from expressing those differences. And it's important for us not to judge somebody harshly because they believe something different than we do. It would be a very boring world if we all thought the exact same way. And it would be very cruel if we didn't accept the fact that it's our very differences that make us great as humans.

Member: I was teaching an ethics class to a group of young teens last night when the news came that the war had started in Iraq. The reaction from some was anger; from others it was as if someone had said "your future is gone." I was particularly concerned about the students who felt that their actions and prayers for peace were futile. What should I have said to them? These aren't children that you can pacify by telling them that everything is going to be OK.

Ross: I don't think we should say that everything is going to be OK, because we don't know that. We should say that we're doing everything we can to make everything okay, but we don't know what the outcome is. People should, at this time, turn to what normally comforts them. If prayer normally comforts you, even though the answers may not be immediately present, people should continue to do that and not lose faith. Whatever means people turn to normally to get comfort, whether it's prayer, meditation, talking to friends or clergy, being active, marching, speaking out, they should continue to do that. Because we don't know exactly where this is going, and it's up to each individual to do whatever he/she can do to feel as if he/she is making a difference.

Member: These teens felt that no one would listen to them -- politicians or God. They had protested, written letters, and prayed. And still there is war.

Ross: But there are many things in life where we feel very strongly but are not heard. In this situation the consequences are more dire than what we're used to so it's more difficult to accept. We should not give up. People who are protesting and feel they've not been heard, they should continue protesting even louder. I don't think people should feel that what they're doing doesn't count, because every individual in this country, and every group effort, has something to offer and should not be held back.

Member: It's hard to explain to children why it is OK for Americans to kill people when we have said all along that killing is wrong. Any suggestions on that?

Ross: I don't think we should ever say it's OK for Americans to kill people. That is never OK. We are trying to remove from power an individual who doesn't share our philosophy of not killing people. And that's part of why those who are calling for war believe that what we're doing is necessary. And we're hoping that by removing this individual that innocent people will not have to be killed anymore.

Member: If my child doesn't seem concerned about the war should I ask her probing questions to see if she's hiding a fear, or is that creating anxiety where none exists? She's elementary-school age.

Ross: If you're concerned that the child is not talking about feelings, there are a few things to look out for:

  • Nightmares
  • Misbehaving
  • Acting out in any way that's different than normal at home or in school

You may want to talk to the teacher because, for sure, teachers are talking about this in the classroom. You may ask the teacher whether she's noticed anything strange in your daughter's behavior.

Different kids react differently. Your daughter may be someone who, like many kids, lives in her own world and feels safe in her own environment, and I wouldn't bring up reasons for her to be anxious. If she's just not talking about it, but it's coming out in other way, then something needs to be done.

I would probably treat it the way you talk to them about sex. That is, you ask them if there's anything they want to know, you answer their questions simply and directly, and don't offer any more information than they need to have. The most important thing is that the child feels secure and that neither her family nor her is in danger. That's what's most important to a child.

Member: I have a 15-year-old son who has been diagnosed as bipolar and ADHD. He is dealing with a lot of issues already. I am worried about his reaction to the war news. Of course they discuss it in school. For a boy who is already dealing with depression, news about the war is even more depressing. He keeps asking me how this could be happening and of course I don't have a good answer for him. What can I do to help him through this?

Ross: I think exactly what you're doing. Allow him to talk about it, to be honest with him in telling him that you don't have answers. But reassure him that he and your family are safe. That seems to be the most important things for kids, is to know that their world is safe. As these events happen in other parts of the world, come back to the fact that you and your family are safe. For most of us, the best gift we can give our children is a sense of security, and they are safe right now. We have to focus on that. As adults, we have to have plans and make sure the kids know about it. Do we have enough food, do we know what to do. Let them ask the questions and do everything to give them the assurance that their world will be safe.

Member: Right now between the war news, sick kids, and the pressure that I put on myself to perform at work, I'm just feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Any advice for getting out of this slump?

Ross: Just to know that you are not alone. Millions of people are experiencing what you're feeling. This is a time to do something for yourself that makes you laugh, go dancing, a class, turning on an old comedy, something that will take your mind off of the things that you're worrying about.

If the anxiety is so persistent and intense that you are not able to get outside of it and carry on the day-to-day functions of living, then you may want to contact the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, at ADAA.org. They have a lot of information including self-help quizzes to determine the degree of your anxiety and a resource list of specialists around the United States and Canada who can treat anxiety problems.

Moderator: Jerilyn, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Ross: The anxiety and fear and sadness that people are feeling right now in this country are very real and appropriate reactions and emotions. But if the anxiety begins to interfere in one's work or family life, people should know that they can be helped. There are psychological treatments, medication, and self-help books; all can help. It's very important that if anybody finds themselves not functioning because of their anxiety that they see it as a strength rather than weakness to get help.

Moderator: Our thanks to Jerilyn Ross for joining us today. For more information, please read Triumph Over Fear, by Jerilyn Ross, MA, LICSW.

Ross: My book is available at www.rosscenter.com

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