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Real-Time War Can Create Homefront Guilt

It's OK not to obsessively watch the TV coverage, experts say

FRIDAY, March 28, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The road to Baghdad is paved with bombs, bullets and blood. And thanks to TV, it's a path that cuts 24/7 through the heart of America's living rooms.

For some people, instant access to the front lines lends a sense of control to an otherwise uncontrollable situation. But for many others, watching the war coverage can become more obsession than choice -- and one that's often fueled by feelings of guilt, mental health experts say.

"People sometimes get the feeling that life has to be all one way -- that we can't recognize the seriousness or sadness of a situation, and feel bad about that, and yet also experience a sense of personal joy or react with a sense of pleasure when the appropriate situation arises," says Dr. Charles Goodstein, the president of the Psychoanalytic Association of New York.

So, when some people try to turn off the drama and trauma of the war, or turn to another show to escape, or do something that makes them feel good, they can be overrun with conflicted feelings and, ultimately, a sense of guilt.

A real-life example of one such conflict just played out when television producers and the ABC network debated whether to air the Academy Awards on Sunday.

While the show did go on, the TV audience was down an estimated 10 million viewers. That fact, along with the number of stars who chose to forgo the ceremony, indicates that many people may not have handled their feelings about enjoying the broadcast with ease.

Psychologist Edi Cooke says what may have been missing was the sense of permission that it is OK to feel good for a few hours -- even in the midst of a great national crisis -- and also that you need to recognize your mental health may depend on your ability to do so.

"Life has to have a balance of both good and bad, and it is neither healthy nor productive to continually bombard ourselves with fearful or disturbing thoughts or images without something to balance it," says Cooke, a stress expert from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Studies conducted after the terror attacks of 9/11 revealed that those who spent days glued to their televisions, continually reliving the horrific events, were far more likely to lapse into depression and suffer anxiety and panic attacks than those who curtailed their viewing.

"It's important to understand that turning the dial and taking a break from the war doesn't have to put a dent in your sense of patriotism or kill your pride in being an American," Cooke says.

More important, she says, is recognizing that watching the war on television is not going to affect the outcome, or those doing the fighting.

"It's important that we don't get pulled into the events as if we are an active part of what is going on," Cooke adds.

Some experts believe that some viewers' obsession with the war might owe, in part, to the "reality TV" craze.

While most people can easily draw the line between fantasy and real life, reality TV does its best to blur that perception, to the point where watching allows viewers to participate and influence the outcome of the show -- and people's lives, experts say.

"The line between entertainment and world events can become very muted when you are using the same medium to broadcast both," Cooke says.

Regardless of what's driving a person's need to watch the war, experts say it can be helpful to turn an obsession into a constructive motivation, by looking for other ways to express your feelings.

"Taking action -- no matter how small -- is one way to overcome fear and anxiety, and make you feel that you can make a difference," Cooke says.

Experts suggest a number of ways. Writing letters to soldiers, offering comfort to those with loved ones on active duty, volunteering at your local Red Cross, organizing a neighborhood safety watch, or even joining a local protest rally.

Equally important, adds Goodstein, is getting away from the TV and spending time with others who may share your feelings about the war.

"It is during times of great stress that it is most important that we feel connected to one another -- and that we realize that we are not the only ones affected by what is going on," he says.

If you find you're experiencing signs of stress, including a change in sleep habits or appetite, or if you're simply unable to turn off the war coverage without feeling significant anxiety, experts suggest you talk to your doctor.

More information

For more information on coping with traumatic events, visit The National Institute of Mental Health. For more on helping children cope with traumatic events, click here.

SOURCES: Charles Goodstein, M.D., psychiatrist, New York University Medical Center, and clinical associate professor, New York University School of Medicine, and president, Psychoanalytic Association of New York; Edi Cooke, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, department of psychiatry and mental health, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; photo courtesy of U.S. Army
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