A Clinical Psychologist’s tips on how to manage worry and anxiety about the conflict in Ukraine
Here in the UK, the War unfolding before our eyes in Ukraine is shocking, distressing and very unsettling. Over a period of just two weeks, the world has witnessed over 1.5 million people displaced, fleeing their homes and livelihoods. Many people, including children, have been killed or injured, and towns and cities have been left in ruins. Increasingly there is talk of World War Three, which, not surprisingly is very anxiety provoking.
This article is aimed at helping people who are not directly impacted or involved in the War but for whom the conflict in Ukraine is understandably causing worry and distress. If you are directly affected by the War in Ukraine or are experiencing trauma from conflict it is always recommended to seek professional support where possible.
Worry about the War in Ukraine
The War in Ukraine is difficult to make sense of, particularly if you have never known or experienced conflict like this in your lifetime. It is likely to bring up a whole host of different emotions and feelings that in themselves may feel difficult to manage, including worry. You may find that you are worrying more than usual or have noticed a deterioration in your mental health. This may particularly be the case if you are prone to worrying or experience generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
There are many different worries about the conflict in Ukraine that you might be experiencing to varying degrees. Some themes may be:
- Will the War in Ukraine reach us?
- What if they use nuclear weapons?
- What if NATO's approach changes?
- What if the War in Ukraine affects travel?
- What will happen to all of the refugees?
- What impact will the War have on household bills or access to food and petrol?
- What if my family member gets called up to go to War?
Below we describe various strategies to help cope with worry about the War in Ukraine.
1) Adopt a compassionate attitude
First and foremost, adopting a compassionate attitude towards yourself is very important. It is all too easy to get caught up in self-critical thoughts and ‘shoulds’ (for example - “I should be doing more, I shouldn’t be enjoying myself when people are suffering”), which in the end only serves to increase anxiety and worry.
Drawing on Kristin Neff's three components of self-compassion, being self-compassionate in the context of worry about the War in Ukraine may look something like this:
- Self-kindness - Having warmth and understanding for yourself in an anxious moment.
"I am worried about the War and it feels tough right now. It is understandable that I am worrying when so many people are suffering and things feel so uncertain at the moment.”
- Common humanity - A recognition that the nature of being human means we are imperfect and vulnerable and that; as a result, we suffer at times.
"I am not alone in this; other people are also worrying and struggling with the distress caused by the War in Ukraine."
- Mindfulness - Willingness to observe difficult thoughts and feelings rather than being over-identified and hooked by them:
Try putting “I notice I am having the worry that...” in front of the worry.
This defusion technique used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is beneficial in creating a bit of distance between you and the worries you are having.
2) Categorise your worries & act accordingly
Worries can be categorised into two types: hypothetical worries and current problems.
Current problem worries
Current problem worries are worries about an actual problem in your life that you can do something about. Let's take an example:
I'm worried that I can't pay my energy bill as it has gone up significantly.
Ask yourself two questions:
1) What practical things or action(s) do I need to take to help me manage this problem?
With this example, there may be quite a few things you can do. For example, it may be getting in touch with your energy provider to see if a payment plan can be arranged, work out where spending can be reduced, or get advice from friends/family or organisations that can help.
2) Can I do anything about it right now?
If yes, go and do them. If not, write down what you need to do and plan when you can do them.
Hypothetical worries are worries that you cannot do anything about because they are anxious predictions or possible worst-case scenarios about what might happen in the future. If you are worried about the situation in Ukraine, many of them will likely be hypothetical. Let's take an example:
What if nuclear weapons get deployed during the War in Ukraine?
Of course, this is a very anxiety-provoking thought to have. You do not need to be a weapons expert to know that the consequences would be disastrous if this happened. However, in reality, there is nothing you can do about this possible situation, so it begs the question, is it helpful for you to keep worrying about this?
The answer is no - it is not helpful for you to get so consumed by worst-case scenarios that may or may not happen. On the contrary, it increases your anxiety and leads you to disengage from what's important in your life.
Focusing on what you can control in line with your values, on the other hand, is helpful. Think about what you want to stand for, what kind of person you want to be as you witness the War in Ukraine. For example, if it is important to you to be caring towards others, acting in line with this may involve donating money or goods to various charities to help Ukrainian refugees. Doing something that you feel will be useful can go some way in helping to get a better sense of control and enables you to focus on the here and now rather than being swept off into your worried mind.
3) The ACE technique
Coined by Russ Harris, the ACE technique is a simple but effective way to manage difficult moments when experiencing worry and anxiety.
A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
Notice that you are worrying and bring your attention to the feelings that are also showing up in that moment. Acknowledge with a curious and non-judgmental attitude that it is natural for your mind to worry when times are tough or there is a crisis like War happening in the world.
C = Come back into your body
Actively shift your attention from your anxious worries and feelings to how your body physically feels. There are many ways to do this but you could start with slowly noticing your feet on the floor, maybe wriggling your toes as you do, and moving your attention up your body, slowly moving different parts of your body as you do.
E = Engage in what you are doing
Now gently shift your attention to where you are and what you are doing. Notice things you can see around you, the sounds you can hear and so on. Finally, refocus on the activity you were doing. If you are not doing anything in particular, is there something you can do that is meaningful to you somehow?
4) General self-care during tough and uncertain times
Managing worry and anxiety is also about taking care of yourself in general and actively engaging in self-care. Self-care might look different for everyone, but doing things that help support your body and mind is essential. Some examples include:
Maintaining a good sleep routine
Eating well (supporting your body)
Limiting alcohol consumption
Getting regular exercise
Engaging with friends/social activities
Doing enjoyable activities
Keeping good boundaries between work and home life, especially if you work from home
Developing a regular mindfulness practice
Reduce and manage exposure to the news
We are currently witnessing a very distressing and unthinkable War in Ukraine. For those of us who are in other parts of Europe and the world, away from the conflict and for whom are not directly involved, the War in Ukraine may be causing significant anxiety and worry. This article has outlined various strategies to help manage worry self-compassionately whilst maintaining good self-care habits.
Information and resources for anyone experiencing trauma:
For dealing with overwhelm about the War:
Ways to help
For details of how to help support Ukrainians at this difficult time please go to The Red Cross.