If you woke up this morning, looked at the news, and felt increasingly worried about the war in Ukraine, you are not alone. After a two-year pandemic, it’s a lot to absorb, and experts agree that feeling overwhelmed is normal.
Here is their advice on how you can take care of yourself, your kids – and others.
What you can do to help yourself
While it’s right to think first and foremost about the impact on those caught up in the conflict, it’s also completely normal to feel upset from afar by what we’re seeing in Ukraine, says Alex Bushill, from the mental health charity Mind.
“It’s very natural to be distressed by what we’re seeing, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t,” he says.
This doesn’t always lead to anxiety, but the NHS and Anxiety UK agree on some key ways to avoid it: eat well, get outside, put your phone down, connect with people, rest. These are all pretty basic pieces of advice, but when you’re stressed, they can be difficult to do consistently.
Alex says breaking it down into a two-step process can help. The first is to remove yourself from triggers so that you can practice mindfulness.
“Get yourself into a place where you can be in the moment – whether that’s sport or walking the dog,” he says.
The second step is to focus on self-discipline around specific techniques that work for you. “Create the space to take a lunch break or play squash on a Tuesday with your mate – and to make sure you do that.”
🧵 There’s no question that the news is difficult to read and absorb right now. But we’ve got some things that might help you feel a bit less stressed. Settle in for a thread. (1/12)
— Mind (@MindCharity) February 25, 2022
Experts agree that if you’re feeling anxious, avoid doomscrolling – the act of spending an excessive amount of time consuming negative news.
Clinical psychologist Dr Emma Hepburn says it’s something we often do when faced with uncertainty, but instead of filling in the gaps with useful information, we can end up catastrophising.
“The way we seek clarity is to look for more information, but that often creates less clarity, cause we’re seeing the same information again and again and it doesn’t allow us to step back.”
She also points out that you’re allowed to feel safe and be concerned. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Mind advises only looking at news and social media at certain times of the day, for a limited duration, and then doing something relaxing afterwards.
Alex also recommends being conscious of where you get your information: rely on trusted news sources, focus on facts rather that alarmist speculation, don’t engage with graphic content.
“When I do it, I step away, and it clears my mind, [it works] because you’re not thinking about things you can’t control,” he says.
Sarah Kendrick, clinical director with text support service Shout, says she is particularly concerned about young people, who are typically on their phones a lot and accessing news 24/7.
“Children and young people are texting in saying they’re worried about war, some say it’s keeping them awake at night,” she says. “They’re up at night with access to their phones and with news alerts going off.”
The guidance that Shout has been giving out sounds simple – turn off your phone at night and don’t feel like you have to keep looking at the news – but it can be hard to put into practice.
“We always say, try to remember what we can control, and you can certainly control the amount of media you consume and how much sleep you have and how much you reach out for support.”
What you can do for your kids
The first thing to know is that avoiding the topic can make children feel scared, says Ane Lemche, a psychologist and child counsellor with Save the Children.
Prof Vivian Hill, from the British Psychological Society, recommends making the conversation age appropriate. For younger children, she suggests, this could be as simple as showing them where Ukraine is on a map, so they understand it’s happening somewhere far away from them. For older children, it might include providing some context.
But at any age, the key thing is to reassure them.
“Keep it as matter-of-fact as you can: explain that there have been wars all over the world in the past few years and we’ve been lucky that most of them haven’t had any impact on families in the UK – it’s a good way of helping them to have a sense of the degree of risk that’s posed to them,” says Prof Hill.
“And that’s what children want reassurance about – that they’re safe.”
If they are worried about people in Ukraine, she suggests talking about the measures they are taking to protect themselves. “You talk to them about how most people are in air raid shelters and away from the bombs, or you may talk about how people are moving to other countries where it’s safer.”
If parents themselves are feeling anxious, children can pick up on that, so it’s important adults get support too, she adds.
“If you’re feeling really upset and your child asks you a question, say ‘can we talk about this a little bit later’.
“And if you don’t feel up to it, find someone else who can do it – you might have a partner or a member of extended family who’s better at coping with that.”
She says it’s normal for adults to feel “wobbly” post-pandemic and to wonder when there might be a period of stability. She recommends making sure there are “protected times” where there is no exposure to news, such as switching off the radio during the school run.
“The advice I’d give to children is just as much relevant to the adults. You have to try hard to guard time where you just have fun and escape all of the bleakness. It’s about having compassion for everyone including yourself.”
What you can do for others
Helping others is one of the five steps recommended by the NHS to improve mental wellbeing and there are countless ways to help with the Ukraine crisis.
A number of charities have launched appeals, including the British Red Cross, the UNHCR refugee agency and Unicef, while many individuals across the UK are raising money and collecting donations independently.
Dr Hepburn says that watching war unfold can make you feel out of control, and focusing on ways to help can manage that.
“There’s lots of evidence that doing something for other people has a really beneficial impact on your own mental health. If we perceive that we made someone else feel good, we feel good. Our brains are designed to be social and have connections and creating a connection with something bigger than you is really beneficial to your wellbeing.”
Dr Hepburn “draws psychology” and posts the images on her Instagram page, The Psychology Mum. Her most recent illustration is about how people can help with the Ukraine crisis.
“It’s about making sense of a complex situation. And I guess it was me trying to do something as well.”
Shout, which is looking for volunteers, believes there are benefits for people on both ends of the phone.
“We’ve all found ourselves talking about this war to friends and family and there’s a really big reason for that and that’s because those conversations are comforting,” explains Sarah.
“One of the great things about being involved in a service that helps other people is the sense of satisfaction or accomplishment you get, and that’s what people are looking for.
“People can feel helpless in the face of war or big world events, and taking it back to the small things we can do is hugely enriching for people.”
Prof Hill says “kids absolutely love” finding positive ways to help others and recommends getting them involved.
“Injustice is something kids feel very strongly about, so get them to think about ways they can help the Ukrainian community,” she says.
“There are people collecting donations, things to send to refugee centres, do something like that. Sometimes doing something constructive is really powerful.”