The escalation of the Gaza war and subsequent devastation due to Israeli bombing in the Strip has resulted in a noticeable increase in cases of people seeking mental health at centres in the UAE.

"We have had an influx of companies and individuals who have asked for support during this time," said Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of The LightHouse Arabia.

"Many people are struggling with overwhelming feelings of secondary trauma and collective grief. Some are experiencing PTSD symptoms being triggered due to a 'war' in the region, and they grew up in a war-torn country."

As the Gaza crisis is nearing its two-month mark, there seems to be no respite in the horrors of a war that has already killed thousands. Heartbreaking images and videos continue to be shared on social media as Israeli bombardment continues in Gaza after a temporary truce that lasted six days. During this time, fighting was paused, and humanitarian aid was allowed to enter Gaza as Hamas released captives in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

"We are noticing the continuous exposure to graphic images and narratives, which has resulted in a myriad of psychological, physical, and cognitive symptoms among individuals witnessing the violence, regardless of their geographic location," said Hiba Salem, Adult and Families Specialist Psychologist at Sage Clinics, which has also seen an influx of people seeking mental health support to deal with the crisis.

Losing family, survivor guilt

According to these experts, many of their patients are dealing with various emotions and feelings. "We have had clients who have lost one or more family members in Palestine," said Dr Saliha. "The pain, however, transcends people from all over the world living in the UAE. Many people feel isolated in their grief and are looking for places to go to and be with others who are hurting and grieving."

Hiba added that there were several common feelings among most of the people she saw. "For many, emotions of anger, grief, survivor's guilt, and helplessness are key themes with varied coping mechanisms – for some, it has been to check for updates continually and the media coverage, whereas for others, it has been to avoid, and this has meant their social worlds have narrowed and they have become more isolated."

She said many had reported increased fatigue, disruptions in sleep patterns, and appetite. Changes in focus, concentration, and memory have also been commonly experienced. "More broadly, many are experiencing existential and identity crises as they witness crimes that threaten certain worldly ideals and constructs that they hold, forcing them to reexamine certain cultural, religious, or political dogmas," she said.

Coping Mechanism

Dr Saliha advised people to understand that their grief is valid and address it. "Don't dismiss or deny it," she said. "It is expected, and it is normal to feel sorrow, anger, or helplessness. Accepting and making space for these emotions in your day is the first step to addressing them. You can do this by carving out time in your day and removing all unnecessary events from your schedule."

Bushra Khan, Holistic Psychotherapist at Wellth, said it is important for people to reframe their thoughts. "A technique called cognitive reframing can change how you respond to and perceive the things that happen to you," she said. "Finding a more optimistic view of an anticipated negative occurrence is the goal of cognitive framing."

The experts also said engaging with social media consciously and responsibly was important. "While it's crucial to stay informed and show support online, it is also important to do so consciously and responsibly and in a sustainable way," said Dr. Saliha. "Set specific times when you will engage, choose reliable sources for your information, and give yourself permission to tend to your life and family alongside showing up for the Palestinian plight."

Bushra also highlighted the importance of being conscious when reading news. "For example, if you read a newspaper article about a tragedy before going to work, it is better to read the article carefully and engage with that information repeatedly than to read the headline and try not to think about the event," she said. "By repeatedly exposing yourself to bad news, you will feel freer to move on with your day without negative repercussions and be in a better mood."

Reach out for help

Sage Clinics is organizing biweekly online humanitarian support groups, focusing on the emotional and psychological experience of individuals as a result of current events, starting on December 27th.

LightHouse Arabia is doing weekly Palestine grief support groups for those directly and indirectly affected by the tragedies in Palestine.

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