It's Normal to Feel Anxious About Ukraine: How to Protect Yourself from Overwhelm
The rapidly changing situation in Ukraine understandably provokes anxiety, sadness, anger and fear
Therapists Graham Johnston and Matt Wotton offer advice to help you protect yourself from anxiety overwhelm
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It’s been a tough few years for those of us who struggle with anxiety. We’ve had a deeply unsettling global pandemic which kept us indoors, away from friends, loved ones and other means of support. Especially at the start of the pandemic, we didn’t know exactly what we were dealing with, and for months we had no clear route back to normal life.
We’re now dealing with war in Europe, and the uncertainty of what the next few weeks and months hold for the people of Ukraine, and for us, given the spectre of nuclear weapons in the background.
Anxiety thrives in such circumstances: we feel helpless, we lack control, we catastrophise about the impact of nuclear war. We doomscroll in an attempt to stay on top of the situation, partly through a healthy connection to the people directly involved, and partly through a less healthy demand for certainty and control.
Even the positive changes of recent days – previously neutral countries like Switzerland and Sweden shifting decades’ old geopolitical stances; Germany shifting its position substantially on military aid and support – can feel unsettling given their significance. The world feels like it’s shifting on its axis. As Lenin apparently said: 'There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.' We can be left wondering 'what’s next?', knowing and anticipating that something significant is just around the corner. The risk is that we stay hyper-vigilant and scared, with all the concomitant negative impacts on sleep, the quality of food we eat, increased substance use and a reduced ability to stay present with the things, and people, we care about.
Being rich, successful or famous doesn’t insulate you from such universal worries. Zendaya, for example, has spoken about her anxiety during the pandemic: 'I definitely don't have it [my anxiety] under control yet. I don't have the key, so if anybody does, let me know'. Dakota Johnson, another actor, noticed how she was 'constantly thinking about the state of the world right now. It keeps me up at night, all night, every night. My brain goes to crazy dark places with it.' The Eastenders star Max Bowden spoke this week about how he finds himself 'crying at random times' in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
So, what’s likely to be helpful in dealing with our own, very individual, emotional response to such seismic events?
Let’s start by looking at anxiety itself
Anxiety is a form of arousal – putting you on the front foot, ready for action. Physically, it means your stress response is activated: your heart beats fast, priming your muscles to tense or move. Psychologically, it means you can focus and concentrate more intensely on the task at hand.
Anxiety is helpful, in small doses. It can help us to focus, to imagine and prevent scenarios occurring that might lead to social rejection and embarrassment. It helps us detect and avoid threats. So, it’s a perfectly normal, human response to feel intense anxiety about the risk of nuclear war in Europe. Our brains are primed to think: 'What will that mean for my family? How will I ensure they’re safe?'
But anxiety becomes a problem when this stress response gets stuck. You can’t get your mind and body back to its calmer resting point. You remain on high alert, primed to respond at any time to threats - real or imagined - in your life. This can lead to interrupted and disturbed sleep, persistent thoughts, and incessant distraction.
So, what should we do if we’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious given current events? Ultimately, each of us will have a different threshold when dealing with such seismic events. Some of us might need to avoid pretty much all news to stay afloat; others will want to stay up to speed with developments, but want to make sure they’re responding to the emotional impact of what they’re seeing and reading.
Given those caveats, here are six suggested tips for dealing with what’s going on in the world:
1. Limit your news content
Monitor how you’re doing as the day goes on. How are you feeling in response to what you’re reading and seeing? Are you really learning anything new about the situation, or are you scrolling your Twitter feed in the hope of seeing something new, but instead simply replaying the same images and videos you’ve seen multiple times?
Reconnecting with the situation once or twice a day is probably better for you than refreshing your feed numerous times an hour. Reading a daily newspaper is likely to have less emotional impact than watching videos that take you viscerally into the reality of war in a besieged city. Our empathy is commendable, but it has limits.
And remember: rumour and misinformation abound in situations like this. Check out Full Fact and other trusted news sources rather than relying solely on your social media feeds. The Kyiv Independent is a good source on the ground in Ukraine.
2. Give yourself time to feel what you’re feeling
What’s happening in Ukraine is huge. It’s only natural that you will have deep and powerful feelings in response. Anxiety is one. But anxiety can cover up other feelings. Perhaps your endless scrolling and worry is a response to the sadness you’re feeling? It’s perfectly normal to have a deeply empathetic response to those involved in the war – to weep at the bravery of those defending Kyiv, to feel concern for Russian nationals at home and overseas, living with the consequences of their government’s actions. Try not to fight back those normal feelings.
3. Be careful not to let your anger and fear guide your real-world response
Our intuitive response can be wrong. As Michael Bang Petersen has outlined, anger and fear both reflect responses to a world of dominance. Fear responds to dominance with submission; anger responds to dominance head on with more dominance. But ideally, we don’t want to fall into total apathy and defeat, or respond with overblown and dangerous anger to The Other.
4. Keep an eye on your normal life
The war has escalated extremely quickly. But the likelihood is that it won’t be resolved for weeks, maybe months or years. Your life needs to go on. The relationships you care about, the responsibilities you have to other people, the work you value: they’re all still there. Make sure you come back to them. Stick to your exercise routine. Don’t let any healthy sleep habits you have slip. Your guard is down, so be careful what you eat and how much you drink.
Mindfulness practises can also help, by keeping the mind’s focus in the present, rather than preparing for perceived threats in the future.
5. Reach out and talk to someone
We can easily convince ourselves that no-one wants to hear about how we’re feeling. Chances are, your friend who you’ve been meaning to call is feeling stressed and overwhelmed now, too. They might want to talk to you, or be there for you, or both. We’re going through something together at the moment; you don’t need to be alone with your struggles.
You can’t control the outcome of the conflict, but you can direct some of your empathy into real-world positive outcomes. You can write to your MP if you’re concerned about refugee safety. You could donate to British-Ukrainian Aid, Ukrainian Red Cross, or Ukrainian Humanitarian Fund, for example.
You might also want to look to get some professional help. For example, you might want to speak to your GP about prescription drugs. Benzodiazepines like Valium, can help reduce anxiety by targeting the release of the Gamma-Amino-Butyric-Acid (GABA) neurotransmitter, which inhibits signals between neurons. In effect, they tell the parts of the brain in the fear response – mainly the amygdala and prefrontal cortex – to calm down, to be less active.
The difficulty is that they can impact GABA supplies across the brain, which might leave you feeling too ‘spaced out’ in general. As your GP will explain, they can also be addictive, so are often not a long-term solution. Antidepressants – especially SSRIs – are also prescribed to treat generalised anxiety.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines for treating generalised anxiety recommend therapy, especially cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) alongside applied relaxation techniques, especially when anxiety is severe.
CBT helps people challenge their ways of thinking and helps with practical ways to avoid the impulse to over-react, especially when the threat response is faulty. These might include relaxation techniques, distraction techniques, self-talk techniques. Therapy can help support behavioural responses that help with anxiety: reducing caffeine, improving sleep hygiene, increasing exercise, quitting smoking, increased social activities.
In short, it’s natural both to want to connect with what’s going on in the world right now, and to feel deep empathy, concern, anger, sadness and fear. But there are ways to make sure you’re able to do so while limiting overwhelm and staying connected to your everyday life, work and relationships.
Good luck, and Slava Ukraini!