Empathy for the plight of the people of Ukraine is entirely natural and appropriate. But the constant stream of upsetting news can harm the mental well-being of vulnerable individuals, such as children and people who have lived through their own traumatic events. Medical News Today asked psychotherapists for advice about how to discuss distressing news sensitively.
We live in an age when anyone wielding a smartphone in a war zone can show the rest of the world exactly what is happening. The technology makes it harder for state-controlled media to conceal the truth and helps to hold both sides of the conflict to account.
But the barrage of distressing stories and images on social media and television can also harm the mental well-being of vulnerable individuals.
“The war in Ukraine has triggered strong emotions, such as anger, fear, worry, confusion, and anxiety,” said Yamila Lezcano, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), psychology professor at Albizu University in Miami, FL, and program director of the Miami Mental Health Awareness Initiative.
“The thought of war in another country, although distant from the United States, can still be overwhelming for many and lead to safety concerns about their own lives,” she told Medical News Today.
“The prospect of war is an extremely unpleasant and intimidating topic for most of us, as it reminds us that we are unable to control much of what happens in the world,” observed Yalda Safai, MD, a psychiatrist in New York, NY.
“When uncertainty strikes, people imagine worst-case scenarios, which can lead to feelings of helplessness and anxiety,” she said.
Acknowledging the situation in Ukraine is of crucial importance, as is talking about it with your loved ones in a supportive and sensitive way.
People prone to anxiety
According to Lezcano, the best way to help vulnerable adults who are feeling anxious about the conflict is to acknowledge their feelings and support them in finding ways to cope.
“Listening and communicating nonjudgmentally is essential, as it helps the person feel heard and understood while not being judged,” she said.
“This can facilitate talking freely about their issues and asking for help if they need it,” she added.
Aivigail Lev, the founder and director of the Bay Area CBT Center in San Francisco and Oakland, CA, said it was important to be honest about the situation in Ukraine.
“We can’t protect people from what’s happening in the world,” she said. “Sugarcoating the situation won’t help.”
“Let them know you are there to help them process their feelings,” advised Joe Vaccaro, PsyD, executive director of Newport Healthcare in Orange County, CA.
“Get involved in outdoor, stress-reducing activities together — like going on walks during your conversations,” he added.
He also suggested encouraging them to seek out meditation and mindfulness as tools to manage anxiety.
News from Ukraine may be particularly upsetting for those who have traumatic memories related to war. Keep in mind that trauma survivors are often overwhelmed by their feelings, said Lezcano.
“[Tell them] that they are not alone in their feelings and that it is common for many people to express distress after a trauma occurs, especially when certain situations, such as the war in Ukraine, could serve as triggers,” she said.
“Social support is a protective factor in helping those vulnerable adults feel safe and connected with people who genuinely care about them,” she emphasized.
“The news coming from Ukraine is distressing for viewers of all ages but may be especially difficult for children and adolescents,” said Aude Henin, Ph.D., co-director of Child Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“When deciding whether to raise the topic of Ukraine with [young people], parents can follow the child’s lead and ask about what the child knows,” she said.
“With very young children, it may be best not to raise the topic unless the child brings it up,” she added.
“No matter your child’s age, do not share war stories before bed, as war is never an appropriate bedtime story. […] Whatever your tone, your child will mimic it in spirit. If you are afraid and your voice reflects that, your child will be afraid. It’s OK to convey concern and empathy. But please do not convey anger or anxiety because this transfers to the child.”
“Kids will have questions about what’s going on in Ukraine. Encourage them to develop their critical thinking skills and to engage thoughtfully in current events — while simultaneously navigating their emotions in a healthy, safe, and productive way.”
Teens and young adults
“With less life experience and independence than adults, young adults and adolescents also need help navigating news about the crisis,” said Amanda Fialk, Ph.D., LCSW, partner, and chief clinical officer at The Dorm in New York, NY, which provides psychological support for young adults.
“Parents should listen, be authentic, ask open-ended questions, and validate the feelings that their child is expressing,” said Dr. Fialk.
“Let your kids know it is OK to feel sad, worried, scared, and angry at this situation,” she added.
“Acknowledge the negative but focus on positive stories in your discussions,” advised Dr. Vaccaro. “Talk about organizations that are helping people in need and young people that are passionate about peace, for example,” he said.
“For those already [experiencing] generalized anxiety, the prospect of an unstable world can seem like a catastrophic event,” said Dr. Safai. “If your loved ones fall into this category, avoiding the topic altogether might be in their benefit.”
For all others, however, she said it was important to engage in educational conversation.
“Whether you decide to bring up the heavy topic of war at the next family gathering, remember to break the habit of ruminating on bad outcomes, avoid catastrophizing, and maintain a balanced perspective.”
– Dr. Safai
“Encourage your loved one to acknowledge their boundaries when it comes to consuming news/social media during this time — whether that means limiting screen time altogether, turning off news notifications, etc.,” advised Dr. Vaccaro.
“Instead of ‘doom scrolling’ when they are feeling anxious, encourage them to get outside! Being outdoors and breathing fresh air can reduce stress and anxiety,” he said.
People should be wary of the temptation to ease their anxiety with alcohol or other substances, said Dave Marlon, former CEO of CrossRoads of Southern Nevada, substance misuse treatment center, and co-founder and CEO of Vegas Stronger.
“Having empathy for the people suffering the atrocities of war occurring in Ukraine is natural and appropriate,” he said. “Coping with the worry and sadness by increasing your consumption of alcohol and other drugs is not a healthy response.”