Managing anxiety during the Ukraine crisis – small things that can help in big moments

Rage, fear and helplessness. That’s what many of us are feeling, looking at the horrific pictures coming from Ukraine, many of which are now showing images of wounded children. And, perhaps, we feel guilt too.

Most of us won’t be the ones sheltering in bunkers, running for our lives or picking up a gun for the first time to defend our family.

But being guilty about having feelings of anxiety is not helpful. I studied dozens of journalists covering conflict and disaster and one thing was clear. Guilt made their traumatic stress significantly worse.

What is going on with our emotions?

Many of us will feel a sense of anger, impotence, and anxiety – and that’s normal.

We may have family and friends in Ukraine – or we see what’s happening just a couple of hours flight away in Europe, and we feel helpless, hopeless and overwhelmed.

Then, there’s the fear of how this might spread and what that would mean for us.

We will feel the indirect effects, like increases in energy and petrol prices, but we may also have real fears about where this war may go. One of my presenter friends said she felt physically sick upon hearing Russia’s threat of nuclear preparedness.

What’s happening in our body and brain during anxiety?

The body and brain are excellent at sensing danger and uncertainty – and when there’s a threat around, it acts instinctively. 

Even if, to you, the war is a couple of thousand miles away, it can feel very present. 

So, the brain will be on high alert, already in fight-flight-freeze. 

You may wish to run away and hide, avoid, and withdraw, or just feel stuck and frozen. 

Your body is likely to be reacting to this threat state – when we are in fight-flight-freeze, there’s a surge of adrenaline and cortisol, the heart might be beating faster, or there may be a sense of distance and unreality.

Where do I start?

  1. Notice what’s going on with you. Start with a body scan. Where are you holding tension? Has your breathing become high and shallow? Is your heart racing, or do you feel disembodied?
  2. Has your behaviour changed? Are you avoiding all news – or, alternatively, ‘doom scrolling’ – worried that you may miss something if you look away?
  3. Are your thoughts racing and colliding? Spiralling into the ‘what if’s’?

All these symptoms are normal and natural reactions when faced with a threat. But when the brain switches into this state of ‘readiness’, with adrenaline surging, heart racing and muscles tensing – the thinking, processing, rational part of the mind is quietened. And we need that bit, to cope.

What next?

  1. Be curious and try to acknowledge, accept and stay for a moment with any difficult feelings. It’s not easy, but this ‘observing’ reflection puts the brain into a different state, where we feel more in control.
  2. You might feel guilty, either for not being able to help or for the fact that you feel lucky. Recognise that, don’t judge yourself for it. Self-criticism exacerbates rumination and anxiety.
  3. Do what you can. This increases your own sense of agency. Check-in on friends who are worried about friends or family in Ukraine. Is there anything practical you can do to help?
  4. Raise awareness, donate, reach out and offer kindness to others who are struggling (see links below).
  5. Chat to the kids – what are they hearing? They may be picking things up from friends or on social media that are incorrect and unnecessarily frightening. It depends on their age, but with younger children, don’t overwhelm them with detail, keep it short, factual and as reassuring as you can be. With teenagers, direct them towards reputable news sources and have conversations about managing uncertainty.
  6. Manage when and where YOU get your news. Be careful who you follow on social media and what hashtags you click on – and be careful with whom you share your anxiety. Stay away from those who may exacerbate it.

We will need to look at the horror, and to bear witness to it, to think about our own responses and what we can do. But being conscious about what we watch, and when, does not mean we care less about what’s happening.

Don’t forget we’ve been on high alert for two years since the pandemic – and we know there are ebbs and flows during any crisis, and that eventually, it will pass. Trying to predict what’ll happen, brooding and being in a pattern of ruminative thinking, isn’t helpful.

Take those lessons learned over the past two years about how best to top up your own resilience levels. As the saying goes ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. The anxiety you’re feeling comes from a place of empathy and compassion. Use that compassion for others but remember to show it to yourself too. We are wearied by years of threat and danger. Take time to do the little things that help you cope. You’ll be in a far better state to deal with what comes next if you do.

Dr Sian

If you want to take action and donate to an organisation supporting Ukrainians, here are some suggestions:

Red Cross Ukraine Appeal

United Help Ukraine

UN Refugee Agency Ukraine Appeal

Unicef Ukraine Appeal

Local Ukrainian Charities

Sunflower of Peace