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The impact of Ukraine and mental health


Dr Danny Hinton, Senior Lecturer and Course Director of Undergraduate Psychology at the University discusses the impact the war is having upon mental health, and what we can all do to look after our mental health in these difficult times.

The invasion of Ukraine is currently dominating global news.  While, for most of us, these events don’t impact us in the same way as the citizens of Ukraine, the current political turbulence and the uncertainty of what lies in the future is having very real psychological effects on many of us. 

Most of us were born – and have lived up until now – in a relatively quiet period in history.  All of that changed when Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to invade Ukraine.  Suddenly, the future was plunged into uncertainty, and political commentators and the public alike began discussing what all of this meant for the people of the United Kingdom.  What were Putin’s intentions?  Would he stop at Ukraine, or advance further west?  What would NATO’s response be?  Could we be facing the possibility of nuclear war?

The severity of current events and the uncertainty of what will happen in the future have the potential to wreak havoc on our mental health, at a time when things were already tough: the ongoing pandemic has been extremely challenging for a great many of us, and there has been a global spike in the prevalence of mental health issues such as anxiety.  Anxiety isn’t the same thing as experiencing stress.  Anxiety is a physical and mental response to stressors that can, in acute cases, be very unpleasant, and very disruptive to our lives.  Anxiety and worry can make our thoughts spiral out of control: you might feel constantly on edge, maybe like you are going mad.  You might feel physical symptoms too, like you have trouble breathing, your heart is pounding in your chest, that you’re going to be sick, or that you might pass out at any moment.  If left unchecked, anxiety can get worse, to the point where living a normal life can seem very difficult indeed.

What can you do to look after your mental health?

The good news is that anxiety and worry are very common, and very treatable.  In most instances, there are things that you can do to treat your anxiety yourself without needing to talk to a professional.  To begin with, it is helpful to think about what aspects of your life can and can’t be changed.  In Counselling Psychology, there is a concept called circles of control, that helps us to understand and reflect on how close things that affect us are to our personal spheres of influence.  The idea here is that some things – many things, in fact – happen that are entirely out of your control, so your energy is better focused on things that you can influence.  In the central circle are things that we have full control over.  The middle ring contains things over which we have a small amount of control.  The outer ring is made up of things we cannot control. 

Vladimir Putin is going to pursue his military agenda whatever you or I think, do or say, so this sits in our outer circles, beyond any kind of control we might have.  Our middle circle is populated, in this instance, by our friends and family, over whom we have some control, and we can influence this circle by looking out for each other and providing support to those closest to us.  Our inner circle is made up by the things that we can control, those things that it is beneficial to expend energy on changing.  For the remainder of this section, I’ll focus on some of the things in your life that you can change in order to protect your mental health.

Take up some mild exercise

Top of the list and easily the most effective solution to managing anxiety and worry is to start taking regular exercise.  Many of us live sedentary lives, and the combination of work and life commitments can make it difficult to fit exercise into our busy schedules.  However, there are several benefits to exercising, even for a relatively short time each day.  When these are discussed, they are usually framed in terms of the health improvements exercise can bring, but the benefits to mental health are just as important.  Exercise stimulates the production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel good, so you feel an almost immediate uplift to your mood following working out.  Also, it helps with anxiety, as it gets rid of pent up, nervous energy: it’s difficult to be stressed out when you’re tired out.  Generally, more is better, but the evidence suggests that even mild exercise like going for a brisk walk for 15-20 minutes a day is enough to see some positive impact upon your mental health.  The best time to start exercising was yesterday, but the second best time is today.

Take a break from social media

For most of us, social media has become such an ingrained part of our lives.  It allows us to feel connected to the outside world, particularly during the long periods of isolation we’ve had to endure due to the pandemic.  However, the effects of social media aren’t always positive, particularly when they’re being used excessively, and when times are as bleak as they are now.  Obviously it’s important to stay informed, particularly as events in Ukraine unfold, but doing so doesn’t require you to be plugged in 24/7.  Taking a break from social media – or at least reducing the amount of time you spend on it – can help you to manage your anxiety and worry.  You may need to take steps to ensure that you can break the habit of autopiloting to Facebook or Instagram when you pick up your phone.  You can impose limits on your daily usage of specific apps, which will give you a behavioural nudge to close social media and do something else.  In more extreme cases, you might find you need to delete your social media apps from your phone to help discipline yourself.  Of course, this may be easier said than done: disconnecting from social media can lead to what Cyberpsychologists – Psychologists who specialise in online behaviour – call FOMO (fear of missing out), an uncomfortable feeling that you may be being left out of something important.  However, distancing yourself from the constant stream of grim news, if only temporarily, will help you manage your mental health.

Reduce your caffeine intake

What a wonder drug is caffeine.  It helps us to wake up in the morning.  It keeps us alert.  It helps us to enjoy activities that would otherwise be mundane.  It can help you to train for longer in the gym.  There is even some new evidence to suggest that caffeine is a nootropic, a substance that can boost your memory and mental ability.  But caffeine can also be problematic, particularly when it comes to managing your mental health.  Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system to release glucocorticoids – stress hormones – such as cortisol, which is part of the reason that it’s so great at perking us up.  However, too much cortisol can make anxiety worse: Counselling Psychologists sometimes call caffeine ‘liquid anxiety’, and often their first recommendation when treating someone for anxiety is to persuade them to reduce – or cut completely – their caffeine intake.  Caffeine withdrawal is not fun: it can cause a few weeks of headaches, and make you feel sluggish, at least initially.  But even reducing the number of cups of coffee you drink per day by one or two is a step towards better managing your anxiety.

Be mindful

Being mindful means being aware of what is happening to you right in the here and now.  It means listening to what your mind and body are telling you.  Paying more attention to how you are reacting to things allows you to take steps to managing both the physical and mental aspects of anxiety.  With practice, you can recognise when your thoughts start to race, and you can interrupt them, gently and compassionately pulling them away from what’s worrying you.  Being mindful of what your body is doing can help you to relax.  Pay attention to what your muscles are doing: Are your abdominal muscles clenched? Gently relax them.  Is your tongue pressed into the roof of your mouth?  Gently relax it so that its resting at the bottom of your mouth.  Is your breathing becoming shallow and rapid?  Make yourself take slower, deeper breaths.  By breaking the physical and psychological chain reaction to panic, you can bring your body and mind back under control.

The benefits of Psychology

As is so often the case, the key to solving a problem is properly understanding it.  Anxiety and worry are much more manageable when you know what you’re dealing with, can recognise the warning signs, and take steps to manage your physical and mental responses to external events.  This understanding is what Psychology is all about, understanding human behaviour, and how our thoughts and actions are linked.  If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you should consider taking it further by studying one of our Psychology undergraduate courses.  Our courses explore the many and varied disciplines within Psychology, to help you better understand why people think, feel, and behave in the ways they do.

Of course, Psychology is not all about studying and understanding people.  A large part of Psychology’s practical application is in helping people.  Counselling Psychology, in particular, is about helping people suffering with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression to overcome these issues, to help improve their lives.  If you have an interest in helping others to manage their mental health, you might be interested in our Psychology with Counselling course.  Not only will you learn about all branches of Psychology, you’ll be provided with the knowledge and practical skills to go on to become, with further training, a Counselling Psychologist or a talking therapist.

A final word

What’s worth remembering is that anxiety is a spectrum, and that feeling anxious about the current state of the world is an entirely normal human response.  Things may seem bleak, but the best things you can do are to treat yourself with compassion, and to remember your circles of control: all we can really do in the current crisis is to hope that a peaceful resolution is reached in the very near future, so focus on what you can do to make things better, both for yourself and those close to you.

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