Mental Health in Times of Crisis: 3 Things to Watch Out For
The Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on February 24 affected both sides. Thousands have lost their lives, millions have lost their homes and been displaced. But perhaps the most widespread consequence has been extreme anxiety. People worry for their lives, families, and businesses, many can not sleep and cry most of the days. Social media platforms are inundated with messages of guilt, persecution and hate.
The Vivid Minds talked with Barcelona-based psychologist, Alla Mesters, who teaches people in situations of crisis about ways to deal with emotions that feel overwhelming.
1. Uncontrollable anxiety
Uncontrollable anxiety is the most common psychological problem these days. It results from the feeling of complete uncertainty. People can’t predict what will happen to them, their family, job, and business tomorrow. They can’t even rely on facts as it’s hard to distinguish them from fake news.
When you are feeling anxious, find a person that could give you a sense of comfort, emotional support, stability, and security. It can be a relative or a friend. The most secure choice would be to find a coach or psychologist, as a specialist will stay impartial and will always find time and energy for you.
They will be able to recreate a safe environment free from judgement, regardless of your political views or general beliefs. Only after you have released strong emotional pressure it makes sense to focus on the deeper reasons behind your anxiety.
The problem with anxiety is that it doesn’t refer to anyone or anything in particular, and it has no specific object of application like a big cloud of uncertainty. Hence, it is important to localize anxiety and define what triggers it. What if you have spent 15 years at the same job and only have a specific set of skills required there? So the idea of losing your job could be your worst fear in the unstable world. Pinning down an actual reason for anxiety can help you see more clearly and come up with an action plan.
A useful tip: limit the time you spend reading news, doomscrolling on social media, etc.
For our mind it does not matter if you are experiencing a difficult situation or reading about it from a smartphone, your mental health can be affected either way, resulting in the “observer trauma” and leading to high level of anxiety or even to panic attacks and depression. The observer, like a real witness of events doesn’t know the truth, and he is in the constant doubt or search of different theories. This is especially dangerous for those who had previously been diagnosed with a mental disorder.
Another tip: Help where and who you can. You become stronger when you help others regain strength. This also brings you back a sense of purpose and reality.
2. Guilt and shame
“I’m Russian, I’m an outcast, they won’t talk to me, they won’t hire me, they won’t let me into a restaurant, my kid will not be accepted into school, and my nation, and my culture are canceled”. These are the most common fears among many Russian clients these days, according to Alla Mesters.
They feel unwanted in the international community and feel shame and guilt for their government’s actions. In some cases, people scold themselves for not having done enough to prevent this conflict or being unable to act — which results in learned helplessness and “survivor guilt”. These emotions are toxic and dangerous as they put you in a victim’s position and can affect your performance at work and at home. You become apathetic or even get physically ill, lose interest in life as if nothing makes sense anymore.
To navigate these emotions, like with anxiety, you need to localize the source of your guilt. It is normal to experience shame when you know that you have done something wrong. It is different though when you respond this way to the events you could not control that are not your responsibility. In this case it is recommended to:
- Separate facts from figures. For example, there are so many people that lost their homes – this is a true fact and this is indeed terrifying. The thought that you can’t do anything to welcome other people into your home because it is completely full – is not a true fact, you emotionally merged yourself with the situation.
- Disconnect yourself from the key objects of identification. For example, I am not the government of my country, I am not the country itself. I can be born in the country, belong there by birth, feel my roots, but the same way as the kids don’t fully belong to their parents, I also can disagree.
- Shift your focus from global news to your work, your family, your friends. While you can not control politics, you can still prepare breakfast in the morning, wash your clothes, meet your deadlines, take your kids to school etc.
3. Communication with friends and relatives
So, how do you talk with Ukrainian friends and relatives who blame you for your government’s decisions? Especially the ones that demand something from you. How should you talk with friends and relatives in Russia who have different views on the situation? When dealing with aggressive posts and comments on social media, what is the best course of action? These are all common questions that people are asking themselves and their therapists right now.
First of all, remember, that aggression is always a projection of repressed fear. An angry person can be actually more stressed and feel more threatened than you are. When people lose the basic feeling of security, they psychologically regress to a state of a small child, demanding protection or crying for help. There is no point in making any logical arguments or trying to prove anything at this moment — you will merely turn the conversation into a fight between two kids.
People have the right to be angry or devastated. But someone, and maybe it is you, should act as a grown up. Just calmly explain that you understand how difficult it is and that you want to support them fully. If you have the strength and energy, try taking on the role of a psychologist during the initial outburst. If you do not, cut back on communication until you can avoid saying something that you may both regret in future.
Secondly, you should not feel forced to join either of the groups (for instance, those who support the war, or those who don’t), even though taking sides can seem more comfortable and safe than standing alone. Save your internal resources and take on the position of an observer. You can feel full of energy to argue and prove you are right, but it can be a trick of the brain in a stressful situation. And in the meantime, move. Physical activity helps release stress. Try some sport, yoga, meditation, or just breathing.
By Varvara Selizarova, business journalist. She studied video-production and content marketing at Hamburg University of Applied Science. She now studies Documentary filmmaking at Moscow Film School and intends to make it as a filmmaker soon.