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Russia’s attack on Ukraine has sent shockwaves around the globe, and many people are feeling stress, anxiety and fear.
There is heartache for those in Ukraine suffering from the violence, uncertainty about what’s to come, powerlessness watching the events unfold, and even trauma from devastating images coming out of the region, psychologists say.
Feelings of those around the world observing the conflict may pale in comparison to the pain of those within it, but that does not mean they aren’t worth caring for, said Wendy Rice, a psychologist based in Tampa, Florida.
“You are not going to do yourself or anyone else any good if you are too consumed,” Rice said.
There are many valid reasons why an international crisis might be hitting you close to home, said Chloe Carmichael, a New York-based therapist and author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.” Fortunately, there are also many things you can do to help address them.
Low emotional reserves
This conflict is coming on the heels of another international trauma: the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whether it was the disruptions to life, job loss or illness, the past two years have exposed people to a lot of scenarios in which adapting to stress was necessary, Carmichael said. When that happens, your body temporarily rises to the occasion – increasing adrenaline, decreasing sleep and amping up energy so that you can handle the stressor coming your way.
But that can’t last too long, or else your mind and body become a drained battery, she said. For many, their emotional reserves feel far too low to experience another period of anxiety.
What to do
The benefit of the timing, however, is that we already know what to do, said Lee Chambers, a psychologist based in the United Kingdom. The same toolkit that helped you get through two years of a pandemic may be just what you can draw upon as you witness war.
See what has worked for you during the pandemic to reduce stress and process your feelings, and try applying those de-stressing techniques now, Carmichael said.
Some of the difficulty may also come from the shock of the attack, leaving many to wonder what is coming next.
Many expected the tensions to boil up and smooth over, as others have done in the past, and for talks between nations to lead to some sense of resolution, Chambers said.
“To wake up to this kind of information, there’s an expected reaction where people are feeling ‘I’m not really sure what the future is going to hold,’” Chambers said.
What to do
How you cope with the ambiguity can depend entirely on what works for you. Some may avoid the issue, while others feel comforted by learning all they can and getting a three-dimensional picture of the situation, he said.
Understanding the global events can be a productive way to cope with uncertainty, but if you’re glued to every update and unable to focus on other things, you may need to set limits on how often and how long you consume information on the conflict, Carmichael said.
As much as individuals might want to do something to end the violence, there is little people outside Ukraine can do to directly change what happens next.
That feeling of powerlessness can make the tragedies we are seeing harder to bear, Chambers said.
What to do
That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t take action.
“Anxiety is often serving a healthy purpose, which is to stimulate us to take some kind of action,” Carmichael said. “What could be stimulating for you to do?”
That could mean writing to politicians, donating supplies or money to organizations aimed at assisting those in the Ukraine, or getting involved in local politics to support candidates who you believe can make a difference, Carmichael said.
If you are struggling, chances are much of those are coming from a place of empathy, Rice said.
Caring for others is a beautiful feeling, but it also can become overwhelming, and years of experiencing a global pandemic can leave people in a state of compassion fatigue, she said.
What to do
It is acceptable – important, even – to disengage from the subject now and again, Carmichael said. Flip to an entertaining show or podcast rather than burying yourself in the tragedy, read a good book or do something you love.
It is crucial to be tapped into other people’s experiences, but so too is it necessary to recharge your own battery, she added.
For many, the heartache of your city being invaded isn’t an empathetic imagining – it is real.
“Especially for people who have been party to terrorist attacks, refugees from conflict in other places, I think it’s going to hit a lot of demographics differently,” Chambers said.
And those who have history, heritage or family in Ukraine may be especially struggling knowing their home is under attack.
What to do
Watch your triggers, Carmichael said. Learn what hits you the hardest and take care to limit those or be gentle to yourself when you do experience them, she added.
Connecting with others of your community and speaking about what you are going through is incredibly important, Rice said. Now, more than ever, people impacted by the conflict need the support of one another, Chambers added.
There are many reasons that the fighting in another country may be impacting you in the US, and rather than minimize those, it’s important to be aware of and process them, Chambers said.
Be aware of the physical signs that the events are getting to you, like changes in appetite, stomach troubles, sleeplessness, muscle tension and irritability, Rice said.
Once you have begun to cope with your own reactions, then you can begin to help others, they added.