Mental Resiliency in a Time of War


Over the last several weeks, I have watched more news on TV than I have of the last two years. The war in Ukraine has absorbed me both for the sadness of the human suffering inflicted on the people of Ukraine, as well as the geopolitical ramifications of having a country led by a power-hungry autocrat trying to turn back the hands of time at least a hundred years.


Let me clearly state that the human toll being suffered by the Ukrainian people is horrendous and pales in comparison to any increased anxiety that I may personally feel watching the images come across the TV and social media. I have the highest admiration for the Ukrainian military and people who have not only resisted this aggression but who are inflecting a terrible toll on those intent on destroying their country. The leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is astonishing in its authenticity and bravery in the face of overwhelming brutality.


This information environment is far different than the one from when our parents grew up. When there was conflict around the world, it was more less confined to a segment on the evening news and on occasion a "special report" that interrupted regular programming.


Today, we have almost instantaneous access to battles being fought, cluster bombs being dropped, civilians being killed and refugees crossing borders fleeing their homes. The fact that we can witness this in real time is both good and bad.


It is a reflection of the new world order and parallels the rise in anxiety and depression in our country and likely around the world.


A major review of the academic literature on adolescent depression, suicide, and self-poisoning found all of them rising dramatically from historical levels starting around 2011:

The same review found a correlation with hours of media usage:


I have seen this up close in the worried eyes of my 12 year old when he asked if Russia could attack us.


But of course it's not just our kids—it's everyone. A study in JAMA published in November 2021 found that our access to social media was leading to depression in adults as well. The research on adults was based on surveys of 5,395 adults whose average age was 56.


So how do we become both aware of the world around us while reinforcing our mental resiliency in a time of crisis? Consider the following three areas:

  1. Information

  2. Action

  3. Perspective


Information

To be informed means you have accurate facts for what is happening as best as is possible. Just as one side of any conflict tries to control the narrative of the story, you must maintain some level of balance in how you consume and find sources of truth.


I admit in this day and age that even truth is a very loaded word. But having as mix of sources will increase the chance of the most accurate picture. Your mind has a great ability to parse information if you are intent about making an informed opinion on the issues. It also has a pretty good BS meter which can be made better by deliberately seeking out information from various points of view.


Next, limit your time in this space. We are all aware of the dangers of being sucked down a rabbit hole and spending the better part of the day scrolling through or watching news feeds. Set aside a limited time to do this (30 minutes or less in the morning) and once observed move on to the rest of your day. Please turn off the multiple notifications on your phone to avoid having your day interrupted multiple times by "breaking news." Avoid reviewing these events late in the evening where it can impact and disrupt your sleep.


A mistake I made early in this was to watch CNN before driving my son to school. It resulted in increased worry when it could have been easily avoided by consuming news after he was dropped off for school.


When it comes to children, even adolescents, it is important to appropriately discuss these events. Most children over the age of 12 likely have a cell phone and are already exposed to their version of the news. Take time to discuss these events and ask for their opinions. In our house, we had an important conversation about "no fly zones," and what they mean, including the dangers involved in widening the conflict and the fact that sometimes you cannot know the right answers in these circumstances. Of course, the younger the child the more the conversation will need to be modified. Striking the balance between providing information and causing undue fear is necessary and challenging.


Action

Being powerless as events happen halfway around the world can lead to hopelessness and despair. The solution is positive action. As has been evident by the hundreds of organizations that have come to life, some through longstanding organized means and many more through individual citizens spontaneously being moved to help relieve the suffering. There are worthy ways to channel your energy to help those impacted by the war. There are many worthy charities that are doing this work.


I know of one doctor who started a charity many years ago to perform medical missions focused on bringing surgical teams to those in need (www.PCCHF.org). This organization is now focused on purchasing medical equipment for hospitals in Ukraine and treating traumatic war injuries.


Whether you donate to one of these charities or become personally involved in providing humanitarian assistance your decision to act allows you to provide hope. As many religious organizations say: you can give your time, talent or treasure to a worthy cause. It will positively impact those in need and often the person doing the giving.


Perspective

In seeking perspective, the Serenity Prayer comes to mind: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.


We can’t change the decision of an autocratic ruler intent on creating havoc in the world by invading a sovereign country. This sense of perspective is something we can practice daily. We can’t control the actions of other people (as tempting as that would be at times). We only control our reaction to a particular situation.


Perspective is encouraged by going to a place of calmness.I've written many times about the importance of the pillar of mental resiliency. The first component of mental resiliency is a focus on calming the mind through the use of various techniques like meditation, breath work, yoga, time in nature or gratitude practices. During this time of heightened stress, we need to double down on these practices. Taking 5-10 minutes at the beginning and end of your day will increase your resiliency and help you gain an important perspective.


The war in Ukraine is a tragedy, specifically for the people of Ukraine but also for the people of Russia being fed disinformation by their own government. These times can easily lead to a sense of hopelessness. By focusing on getting the best information, creating positive action and being intent on gaining perspective you can help yourself becoming mentally resilient and hopeful for the future.



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