It’s a lot. Many people’s mental health is already at a low point. As the cost-of-living soars, and after two years of an anxiety-inducing rolling news cycle around COVID-19, along with the actual stress, loss, grief and disconnection so many experienced, the spectre of the war in Ukraine now hangs heavy.
Many of us feel conflicted. On the one hand a sense of utter gratitude that we’re not facing the horrors unfolding on our doorstep in Europe, and guilt (maybe relief) that we are able to get on with our lives. On the other hand, we might think, when we’re seeing such harrowing scenes, how on earth can we complain about feeling anxious or low in our own lives?
It’s important to recognise that our nervous systems aren’t designed for a 24-hour onslaught of vicarious trauma. The accessibility of social media and an incessant rolling news cycle, means that this war is being played out in real time, with access to minute-by-minute first-person accounts.
So why are many people saying they can’t stop watching? Firstly, because to disengage feels selfish, when those in the midst have no choice. But there’s also a more specific reason. From an evolutionary perspective we are programmed to gather information to keep ourselves prepared for danger. There’s a real sense of uncertainty and powerlessness around what’s happening. We’re naturally driven to search for information in order to make sense of things.
But we need to differentiate between being sensibly informed and becoming absorbed in every detail of what’s happening. We still have to get on with our every day responsibilities, feeling guilty about the privilege of being able to do this won’t help. If possible, avoid comparative suffering, it's great if the war has put certain things into perspective and increased our gratitude for the small pleasures in life, but it's OK to still have concerns about your own work, studies, relationships, health or finances. And to experience your own personal grief or anxiety.
Looking after our own mental and physical health means that we will have the resilience to continue with our everyday responsibilities, as well as being able to help others less fortunate than us no matter who they are. Feeling uneasy about engaging in positive activities and personal celebrations won’t help anyone either. There are lots of better ways of helping that can give us a sense of purpose.
If you’re feeling particularly anxious or low, limit news exposure to a couple of reliable bulletins a day and avoid doom scrolling which can become addictive. As with the pandemic, this is going to go on for some time, there’s unlikely to be a neat end point. Our nervous systems don’t like this, so it’s up to us to complete the stress cycle every day by allowing time for movement, relaxation and rest. Yes, those in the midst don’t have that luxury but denying it ourselves does nothing to help them. It’s OK to say: "I can’t make sense of this, but I need to look after myself too."
Views expressed in this article are the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of BACP. Publication does not imply endorsement of the writer’s views. Reasonable care has been taken to avoid errors but no liability will be accepted for any errors that may occur.