photo of a TV showing a group of armed soldiers in tactical gear moving through an indoor space; TV is in a living room with a lit floor lamp to its right

The past few months have not been kind to us. It seems almost impossible to turn on the news or scroll through social media without encountering a disturbing image. Whether it’s viewing a photo of a child injured through a bombing in Ukraine, reading a gruesome description of assaults on innocent women and children, or listening to a survivor recount her story, the emotions stirred by media may remain with us all day.

What is war anxiety?

War anxiety, sometimes known as nuclear anxiety, is a surprisingly common reaction to the news and images about conflict. News about the war in Ukraine, arriving on the heels of a two-year pandemic, seems to be hitting us particularly hard. This may be related to our already high levels of fatigue, worries, and a fragile sense of control. In a poll from the American Psychological Association, 80% of respondents reported significant stress as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

What does the research say?

We are still learning about the long-term effects of worries related to mass violence. A Finnish study found that adolescents worried about nuclear war were at increased risk for common mental disorders five years later. People prone to anxiety are also more likely to seek out media coverage of crises, which may perpetuate a cycle of distress.

Symptoms of war anxiety

War anxiety can gradually sneak up on you, or it can present suddenly in response to a trigger. Symptoms can be in your mind, in your body, or both. Physical symptoms of anxiety may include a racing heart, butterflies in your stomach, nausea, or dizziness. Some people develop full-blown panic attacks. For others, war anxiety presents as worries that spiral out of control, trouble sleeping, restlessness, or nightmares. Others may feel numb. Keep in mind that anxiety is often an appropriate response to life stressors, and a small amount of anxiety is adaptive — it signals your body to take a threat seriously.

Coping tools that work

When your mind is preoccupied by the war, or when you experience muscle tension or other physical symptoms, there are some strategies can help you break the anxiety cycle.

Finding additional support

For the majority of people with war anxiety, the symptoms will peak and then gradually pass. However, severe anxiety symptoms may require further attention, particularly as exposure to conflicts can trigger memories from past traumatic experiences. If war anxiety starts to interfere with your work, sleep, or general sense of well-being, speak with your primary care clinician about whether therapy or medications may be indicated. For speaking to children about the war, this pamphlet can be a helpful resource. The Disaster Distress Helpline (800-985-5990) is available 24/7 for crisis counseling, and it provides referrals to local resources.

About the Author

photo of Stephanie Collier, MD, MPH

Stephanie Collier, MD, MPH, Contributor

Dr. Stephanie Collier is the director of education in the division of geriatric psychiatry at McLean Hospital; consulting psychiatrist for the population health management team at Newton-Wellesley Hospital; and instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. … See Full Bio View all posts by Stephanie Collier, MD, MPH

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