How can you cope with stress and anxiety during war and uncertainty?
Ukrainian citizens are currently experiencing a severe state of emergency in their country and our hearts are with them. As Israelis, we are used to live in a country that finds itself many times under attack. As such, professionals here developed many methods to help citizens living in conflict zones and find themselves under mortal threat, to deal with their emotions and stress levels as best as possible.
In such chaotic and uncertain times, it is normal to experience stress, anxiety, and depression - different physical, mental, and emotional states. It's our way of coping with a world that changed from a place of security and control to a place of lost control. This is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances.
Furthermore, it is normal for different people to react differently to stress, so it is important that we accept these differences. Various symptoms of stress can be: accelerated heart beat, tremors, high muscle tension, rapid and superficial breathing are common in these situations. Sometimes symptoms will be expressed behaviorally such as a need to constantly move, talk, or the opposite - the need to curl in, hide, not move. Negative thoughts about what can happen in the near and distant future and feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, worry, and anger are also common in response to exposure to stress. These responses may come and go, strengthen and weaken and take different shapes. No matter how we cope, we try to balance ourselves consciously and unconsciously and try to allow ourselves to live optimally physiologically and emotionally.
Modern science and psychology have combined ancient tools and contemporary research to give us knowledge on how best to manage our psyche. To reduce feelings of panic, anxiety, and stress during difficult times, and to improve resilience, a sense of control, and our ability to cope with the outside world in a thoughtful manner.
It starts by simply giving room to sensing our body, breathing, thoughts, and emotions. Allowing them to exist without trying to stop or avoid them can gradually restore our sense of control. Whether you feel highly stressed or anxious right now, or even if you feel strong and in control, we invite you to try and practice some simple methods that can help you face these complex and difficult times. After you practice it a little, you can also guide family, children, and friends. If you have time to sit or lie down, great, however, these techniques should be able to serve you wherever you are - standing, sitting, or lying down. Just for a moment, close your eyes (or keep them open) and allow yourself to notice the whole of yourself - your physical body, what you’re touching, how you’re positioned, what’s supporting you. You can push your feet against the ground or your body against a surface, and/or notice the sensations in the palm of your hands (even move them a little).
Depending on personal tendencies, you may also feel emotions, physical stress, or mental stress. Keep noticing the frame of your physical body alongside everything else you’re experiencing with the least amount of judgment towards it. Tell yourself it is all normal, which it is. You can also imagine before your eyes a scale going from 0 to 10. This scale is called the Subjective Units of Distress - SUD, and the numbers represent stress levels - 0 not at all to 10 - very high. The number you choose is your subjective stress level at this moment. Just write it down in your head. Through attention to our breathing and our body, it is possible to reduce the stress we experience and bring it into effective levels. Pay attention to how you breathe now. It may be shallow, flat, fast, stuck, tense or gasping for air. Everything is fine. It’s your body’s natural reaction to what is going on. If you need to, take a slow deep breath.
Similarly, notice your body - each time a different part of the body - the feet, the pressure of the buttocks on the chair seat or the back if you’re lying down, the belly, back, hands, palms, chest, shoulders, neck, head and face. While some of those areas will feel tense, others may feel fine. Pay attention to the ones that feel fine, because they can help you. Now bring your attention back to your breathing - inhalation, what is moving in the body as it comes in, then exhalation and how the body relaxes a little. Now it may be that just by paying attention to your breathing it will start regulating itself and through that regulate your level of stress. You may also help it a little by relaxing your body and allowing it to “breathe by itself”. If you still feel that “nothing is changing” after a couple of breaths, you may start to slowly slow it down intentionally, one breath at a time. Particularly, make the exhalations and the space between breaths longer, but make sure that all this is comfortable for you. Keep toggling your attention between breathing, sensing your body, and inviting yourself to become more and more calm. It may take some perseverance and practice to stay calm under such stressful circumstances. Any little effort in this direction is beneficial.
Try to practice attention to breathing and body at every spare moment until it becomes a natural part of you and can support you in everything you do. You can also help others learn these basic principles.
Our hearts and prayers are with you, and we hope the war will soon end, and you'll be able to get back to your regular life and put your life back together.
Yuval Simon, LCP, Anicca Clinical Director