Nothing equates to the terror Ukrainians are experiencing as their country is invaded by Russia, but many people far from the war zone are feeling their own anxiety spike with each violent attack.
It’s hard not to grieve when a pregnant woman pictured being carried from a shelled maternity hospital later dies along with her unborn baby. It’s easy to feel hopeless when millions of refugees flee their homes, mourning what they left behind. When separated families weep, many of us cry, too.
Add worries about a potential nuclear conflict in the region, on top of continued pandemic stress and concerns about soaring inflation, and it’s no wonder anxiety is a constant companion.
“Right now, we’re dealing with truly unprecedented levels of uncertainty in our lives,” Jacqueline Bullis, a clinical psychologist who treats adults with anxiety and an instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told TODAY.
“A lot of people are really being pushed to a threshold of their ability to cope because it’s been so constant over such an extended period of time.”
In a recent poll from the American Psychological Association, almost three-quarters of adults, 73%, admitted they were overwhelmed by the number of crises facing the world right now. Some 80% said the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a significant source of stress. More than two-thirds worried it would lead to a nuclear war.
The physical manifestations of that worry can include a racing heart, butterflies or knots in the stomach, muscle tension, fidgeting, and feeling on edge or agitated, Bullis noted. People may find it hard to de-escalate their thoughts at the end of the day, interfering with their ability to sleep.
How do you manage all that anxiety? These tips can help:
Accept your feelings
It’s natural and normal to feel anxious when we’re being faced with so much uncertainty — don’t force yourself to feel something different, Bullis said. Watch your internal dialogue and don’t judge yourself.
“Instead of saying, ‘I hate feeling this way, I’m not going to be able to perform at work because I’m feeling so anxious,’ say, ‘It makes a lot of sense I’m feeling so anxious right now’ and really reflect that acceptance to yourself,” she noted.
Realize you won’t feel this way all day long
Some amount of anxiety is helpful — it prepares us to respond to a future threat, reminds us to take appropriate precautions and motivates us to act.
But our bodies aren’t designed for anxiety to persist indefinitely.
“So even if in the moment it feels like, ‘I’m going to feel this way all day, I can’t handle feeling this way,’ naturally, your body is going to move out of that space and the intensity of the anxiety will dissipate with time,” Bullis noted.
Set boundaries around your media consumption
All the uncertainty is driving many people to stay glued to the news, which can be counterproductive.
“It gives us this illusion of being in control and helps us feel slightly less anxious, but in the long term, those types of behaviors actually increase our anxiety,” Bullis said.
She advised visiting trusted news sources only and creating a routine. Perhaps give yourself five to 10 minutes in the morning to read the updates from Ukraine, but avoid watching videos with graphic content. Then limit how frequently you’re checking the news throughout the day.
Don’t scroll on your phone before bedtime to avoid racing thoughts that can keep you from falling asleep, she added.
Focus on the humanitarian spirit and efforts
For all the horrible things humans are doing to each other right now, there have been beautiful acts of kindness and compassion that remind us there are many good people in the world.
“Of course, there’s going to be intense grief and pain for what refugees are suffering right now. But you might also feel this increased sense of connection and community and humanity, especially when seeing some of the stories and images of people who are helping,” Bullis noted.
“Many of us were really deeply moved by that picture of the Polish mothers who left their carriages at the train station.”
Focusing on the kindness and efforts to help can inspire optimism and feelings of connection, tamping down anxiety.
Schedule worry time
If you’re really struggling with anxious thoughts, set aside a time of the day that’s specifically dedicated to worrying — perhaps at the end of the day, from 5 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Sit down and write out everything that worries you. Sometimes, just the act of putting that list down on paper can help de-escalate some of those worries, Bullis said.
When intrusive thoughts pop up during the day, tell yourself you’re going to address them during your worry time and let them go until then.
Focus on things you can control
They include eating a healthy diet, moving your body and getting plenty of sleep.
“Whether or not things escalate to a nuclear conflict is beyond your control,” Bullis pointed out. “So refocus on intentional things we can control, like our self-care practices.”
Even just a few minutes of interacting with nature can reduce psychological and physical stress levels, studies have found.
“You don’t have to be on a hike somewhere on a mountain. You can be in a city, you can walk outside and pay attention to the sky and the trees,” Bullis advised.
“Connecting with nature is a really powerful way to ground and center ourselves.”
The key is to be fully present, so don’t listen to a podcast or look at your phone. Turn off the notifications and go for a walk.
Stay in the moment
Worries are future-oriented — they’re about events that haven’t happened and may never happen. If you’re feeling anxious, bring your attention back to the present by using your breath, which is always happening in the here and now.
Take a deep inhale and exhale. Remind yourself that you can quiet your mind and body because you’re in a safe space right now.
Improve your world locally
That can mean volunteering to help the people and animals in your own area.
“One of the reasons people often struggle in moments like this is because they feel so hopeless. Aside from donating money, it’s really hard to identify ways to be impactful on the ground in Ukraine from here in the United States,” Bullis noted.
“So doing other things that we feel are meaningful can help.”
Incorporate a gratitude practice into your day by tying it to something else that you’re already doing every day, like brushing your teeth. At night, when you brush your teeth, tell yourself the three things you’re grateful for today.
“Making that a daily practice can be very helpful, particularly in a time where we’re seeing so much suffering in another part of the world,” Bullis said.
“Practice gratitude for all of the safety and blessings that we have in the present moment.”