What to do if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the situation in Ukraine

The recent events in Ukraine can leave many of us feeling overwhelmed, powerless and helpless. Gosia Bowling, Emotional Wellbeing National Lead at Nuffield Health, shares practical tips to help you cope with this renewed time of uncertainty – from stepping back from the news, to using breathing exercises to manage stress and anxiety.

On Thursday 24 February, the news agenda became flooded with reports of the situation in Ukraine. The conflict has dominated the news, social media feeds and even sporting events.

Over the past two years, media reports have covered the pandemic, natural disasters, the climate crisis, conflicts around the world, and the desperate plights of refugees everywhere. Currently, we are facing yet more news coverage dominated by distressing stories and images.

How the news can impact our health

News coverage about the situation in Ukraine, and other conflicts, can leave many of us feeling pain, sadness, confusion and despair. As feelings of shock and anger at the unfolding situation arise, many people can feel powerless and helpless. Ongoing events and our response to them can create feelings of uncertainty which, if left unmanaged, could lead to feelings of stressanxiety, low mood and depression.

As a result of the last few years, many will have found that their emotional resilience, or their ability to anticipate, adapt to and bounce back from periods of difficulty, has been stretched.

Having to cope with multiple ongoing life stressors and continued change has left many people feeling overwhelmed. While some stress can be positive, remaining in a heightened state of stress for too long starts to impact physical and mental wellbeing.

Everyone has their own ‘stress signature’, but stressed individuals often experience muscle tension, fatigue, headaches and sleep disturbance, as well as increased susceptibility to health issues like obesity, heart attacks and stroke. Prolonged periods of stress can also lead to panic attacks or intense periods of anxiety.

Here are six tips on how to cope with this renewed time of uncertainty.

1. Focus on what you can do

While you can't control the actions of others in the world around you, it can help to shift your focus to what you can do, especially if you are feeling powerless or helpless.

Investigate opportunities for volunteering at a grassroots level; there are many different ways you can make a difference.

2. Step back

In uncertain times, checking the news is common. We’re searching for answers and we feel like news updates will provide them.

But for many of us, glueing ourselves to the TV and doomscrolling only fuels feelings of anxiety. It's easy to become obsessed with continual news updates. When we're bombarded with bad news, distressing images and divided opinions, this can take its toll on our mental health.

While it’s important to stay updated with news that impacts us, we need to know when to take a step back. Check a trusted news site once in the morning and evening to catch any important updates, but try to avoid your phone and switch off the TV for the rest of the day if you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed.

3. Focus on your breath

When we become stressed, our bodies go into fight or flight mode, which can lead to sensations like increased heart rate and faster breathing. As we feel these sensations coming on, simple breathing exercises can help us stay in control.

Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Take long, slow inhalations through your nose, hold for a few seconds comfortably and then exhale gently through your mouth. Not only will this take your mind off the uncomfortable feelings, but research suggests around six exhalations a minute can trigger a relaxation response, which helps alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Why not try one of our meditations on Nuffield Health 24/7 for some guided breathwork? 

4. Practise acceptance of uncertainty

As humans, we crave certainty and find uncertainly incredibly difficult to deal with. The truth is, life is often unpredictable, and we can't control what is simply uncontrollable. Acceptance of uncertainty may seem counterintuitive, but it's a powerful technique that can help us handle the unknown.

Become aware of your desire for certainty and ‘observe’ this inner need. Allow yourself to experience uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty and tell yourself that these will pass. As you experience the feelings, shift your focus to the present moment, using awareness of your surroundings or senses as an ‘anchor’.

5. Worry postponement

If you find yourself stuck in a worry cycle, try postponing your worry period to specific times (e.g. half an hour in the morning and evening).

Attention training exercises or mindfulness exercises can help you be more aware of your thoughts and how to direct your attention away from worrisome rumination.

6. Start healthier habits

In such uncertain times, we often try to find activities that help us feel like we have some control over our lives. While there are many things we can’t change, creating a routine can help us regain a sense of balance.

Create healthier habits, based on gaining a balance of activities that enhance wellbeing. Think about activities that give you a sense of achievement, pleasure and connection with others. For example, setting your alarm for the same time each morning, going for daily walks with a friend or colleague, and cooking a nice dinner each night. You could even prepare meals in bulk at the weekend, so you know they’re ready.

Not only does exercise help relieve feelings of stress by giving you a mood-lifting dopamine spike, but enjoying a nutritious diet, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough sleep help balance your brain's chemicals to give you much-needed mental clarity.

If you feel like you need some extra mental health support, you can speak to one of our therapists.

Last updated Thursday 3 March 2022

First published on Thursday 3 March 2022