How do we cope with the horrific war in Ukraine?

It’s distant from our everyday lives, but the war ignites our nervous systems, and our bodies don’t like sustained stress.

These are challenging times.

Coming out of a two-year global pandemic, with COVID-19 fear and loss still at our side, we’re watching a war unfold. Every day the news is bad — Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, are streaming across Europe with just the clothes on their back. Russian bombs are destroying apartment buildings, hospitals and homes. People are dying. It seems so unnecessary. Russia is attacking a country of 40 million people, without a reason any of us can understand. This is a time, with the global pandemic, that the world should be working together for the good of all.

Every night, television news brings us images of disaster and human suffering. I can only watch so much. It’s too much to bear.

On top of this misery is the fear of nuclear war. Russia has an arsenal of nuclear weapons. We wonder — Is Putin unhinged? Will he start World War III? We have no way of knowing what endgame the Russian leader has in mind. We fear for the safety of ourselves, our families, and the world.

This war is far enough away from our homes that it seems distant from our everyday lives. We still work, play, shop and plan vacations. Most of our pain is at the gas pump as the price of gasoline rises.

This European war likens to our experience of 9/11, when our country was attacked. It likens to the Cuban Missile Crisis, another terrifying moment in our history. During the Cold War we wondered if the world would be destroyed by a nuclear war. The end of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall harkened a less fearful time. But now, who knows?

How do these world events impact us? How can we cope?

Our nervous systems are ignited. Our autonomic nervous system monitors our internal and external environment for potential threat. War, conflict or potential danger puts our nervous system on alert status. It can activate our sympathetic nervous system — our fight or flight mechanism. We can feel on edge, our heart rate increases and we can find ourselves feeling tense or irritable. Our sleep can be disrupted. Pre-existing sensitivities, like headache, back pain or gastrointestinal disturbances can be exacerbated.

Some adults and children may find themselves with more worry about other things — school, work, health, family members or finances. The war in Ukraine adds fuel to already existing nervous system fires.

Our bodies don’t like sustained stress. And we’re still coming off two years of COVID-19 and its impact on our lives. Because the war is so far away, we may not attribute our current physical and mental state to world events. But trust me, we’re all effected by world events.

Acknowledge your fears. Sometimes, I want to stick my head in the sand, turn off the television news and log off internet news. I want to focus on what’s in my control and take a vacation from my concerns. But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that I’m deeply concerned about what’s going on in Europe. I must acknowledge my fears.

Breathe. Walk. Pray. Contribute. I am powerless to do anything about world events, other than contribute money to help displaced refugees. I can exercise regularly, breathe and pray for the many who are suffering. I try to focus on what’s beautiful — the blooming cherry trees, my lovely grandchildren and the coming of spring. All I can do is hope for a better day.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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