As Russia Invades Ukraine, Tips to Manage ‘Headline Anxiety’

Feb 24, 2022 – Go to any news channel, news site, or social media platform and you are sure to see continuous updates on the situation in Ukraine, individual and societal losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing political and racial strife in the US, and much more. So how can someone who wants to be in the know protect themselves from stress, anxiety, and dysfunction when such negative news seems to be everywhere?

“I think everyone is, to one degree or another, worried about what’s going on in the world,” says Michael Ziffra, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University in Chicago.

It’s a matter of seriousness; Anxiety is a normal human reaction, he says. But news viewing becomes a problem if it “prevents you from doing what you need to do and just enjoy life.”

Different people react differently, but in general, “a sign that it’s getting too much is that you can’t stop or move away from it,” he says.

It can also be a problem if someone spends a lot of time obsessing over, or thinking about negative news offscreen, to the point where it interferes with their work or home life, Ziffra says.

When stress builds up

A cumulative effect is also possible when negative news comes close together.

“Obviously, what we are going through right now is unprecedented – it’s all happening at the same time – a prolonged pandemic, political unrest, war, climate change,” says Ziffra.

Prolonged exposure to stressors tends to increase anxiety, he says.

While the effects of chronic stress vary from person to person, many experience feelings of depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and fatigue.

Uncertainty can increase anxiety

A stressful event usually has a beginning and an end, which can help people manage their response to it. On the contrary, some of the current stressful situations carry more uncertainty.

“Look what is happening in the world right now. We still don’t know how events will develop with the pandemic or with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” says Ziffra.

If someone has a relative or friends in Ukraine, following developments is normal, he says. But “people should remember that they will be very sensitive to the latest developments.”

According to him, do not watch photos or videos from Ukraine, because they can be visual. Instead, limit access to written news.

In addition, Ziffra invites anyone who feels more stressed or anxious than usual to seek out their friends and other social contacts. With most of the country not in lockdown for COVID-19, it’s now easier to reach out to friends and family for support.

Visionary advice

In March 2020, ahead of a divisive federal election and the start of the pandemic, Ziffra wrote: “5 Ways to Cope with the News” on the Northwestern Medicine website. His suggestions for ways to avoid triggers and manage stress still apply today, he says.

At the time, he warned that “developing obsessive habits of consuming news and information can be dangerous to your mental health.” In addition, social media can amplify the effects of news overload.

Also, recognize that fixation on the news is very common. Ziffra wrote: “We live in very uncertain times, and times of uncertainty tend to cause people great anxiety.”

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