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  • Inna Khazan

Are You Feeling Stressed And Overwhelmed By Catastrophic World Events?

In our day and age, it seems like we can never catch a break from earth-shattering world events. On top of COVID-19, systemic racism, and other hot-button issues, now we are confronted with a devastating situation in Ukraine, as Russian troops advance on major Ukrainian cities and attack innocent civilians.

For most of us, our experience of the crisis is purely secondhand—we can only watch it from our living rooms and listen to news stories about it. Yet this secondhand knowledge of the event isn’t without its stressors. After all, being removed from the situation can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. We may feel like our problems are small by comparison, as if we have no right to feel stressed or upset. We might tell ourselves: Who am I to get stressed out about bad bosses, school deadlines, and relationship issues when I have a safe roof over my head and food in my fridge?

Additionally, we might feel helpless in the face of such evil. The world is full of hurting people whose lives are in danger, and what can we do it about? We feel like bystanders to their pain. While Ukraine is under attack, we can only sit and watch from hundreds of miles away. No matter how strongly we feel about what’s happening, we are powerless to change people’s lives. This can lead to feelings of overwhelm and despair.

How can we manage our sense of helplessness and guilt? What can we do in the face of such atrocities? Is there any action we can take? These are questions that we will address in this blog post.

The Importance Of Practicing Self-Compassion In Chaotic Times

As humans, we have an innate tendency to compare ourselves to others. We do this when it comes to success, but we also do this when it comes to our struggles. We often think: There are people out there dying and starving, so what right do I have to feel anxious or depressed? The trouble with this mindset is that, no matter how much we’re struggling, there is always someone who appears to be worse off than we are.

This is why it’s important to practice self-compassion in the midst of earth-shattering world events. Just because terrible things are happening in the world does not mean you don’t have a right to struggle or feel stressed or that your problems are tiny and don’t matter. What’s more, having compassion for yourself helps you be more compassionate towards others. Without compassion, the nervous system becomes dysregulated. And when this happens, you are not fully able to attend to the needs of other people. Dysregulation makes you go into self-protective mode, which reduces your ability to care for others. So as counterintuitive as it sounds, the greatest thing you can do in times of distressing world events is be kind to yourself first.

One simple way to practice self-compassion is to treat yourself the way you would treat a dear friend when they’re struggling. When you are having a hard time, ask yourself: “What would I say to (insert name of friend)?” and then respond to yourself in the same way. You can also practice self-compassion through meditation, such as Loving Kindness, Giving and Receiving Compassion, and Difficult Emotion Practice. Click here (then scroll to the Compassion and Self-compassion Meditations section) to listen to recorded meditations on these topics.

If you are a parent or caregiver, you might also be wondering about how to talk to kids about war and how to help them navigate their own feelings about it. A colleague of mine, child psychologist Dr. Anya Dashevsky, offers concrete age appropriate suggestions about how to talk to kids about war in her blog post. Consider reading this insightful piece as part of your own self-care.

Using Self-Regulating Techniques When You Feel Overwhelmed

While practicing self-compassion is important, it can sometimes feel difficult to do so in face of intense struggles. Heart rate variability training can improve your ability to self-regulate and provide you with a concrete skill to use when major world events overwhelm you. Heartrate variability refers to the change in time that passes between one heartbeat and the next. The greater the variability in the time intervals between heart beats, the more flexible your heart and your nervous system are in responding to stress. With greater flexibility comes greater resilience and better self-regulation in the face of stress. With heart rate variability training, you can balance your emotional and physiological activation, preventing the stress activation from overwhelming you.

Stress-activation tells your brain that you need to be alert at all times. Increasing your heartrate variability can help you dial down this sense of alertness. You can learn to let your guard down and not be so caught up in your fears. Instead of falling back into automatic stress reactions, you can learn to achieve a calmer and more measured response to what’s going on around you.

How, practically, can you practice getting your heartrate variability up? One of the simplest ways to achieve this is through your breath. Allow your breathing to slow down and to shift from your chest to the belly. Take a normal size comfortable breath in as if you are smelling a flower – there is no need for a particularly big or deep breath. Then exhale slowly and fully through the nose or pursed lips, as if you are blowing out a candle. Count to 4 seconds as you inhale and count to 6 seconds as you exhale. Taking a few breaths like this at a time of overwhelm allows you to focus on what’s right in front of you instead of getting caught up in things you can’t control, such as catastrophic world events. Practicing this breathing on a regular basis trains your nervous system to respond to stress in healthier ways.

If you would like to be more precise in your heart rate variability training or be able to measure, track, and train HRV over time, head over to The OptimalHRV app will walk you through heart rate variability training step-by-step, helping you train your nervous system’s ability to regulate activation and increase resilience.

Getting Involved With Relief Aid In Dangerous Times

Let’s face it: with a situation like the one in Ukraine, we cannot ultimately change what’s happening. The outcome of the crisis is in the hands of world leaders whose lives are far-removed from our own. The most we can do is make our voices heard and, beyond that, to get involved as much as we can. Donating is a great way to start. Below are some resources for Ukrainian relief aid. While your contribution may not be large, even a small donation can go a long way toward helping refugees cope with living in exile and rebuild their lives upon return to their homeland.

  1. Kiddobyte is a teen-run non-profit organization providing free computer science education to underprivileged kids. They recently launched free classes for Ukrainian children and are gearing up to send computers to Ukrainian kids who do not have them. If you’d like to support their effort, please click here to donate.

  2. Donate to this GoFundMe started by people connected directly with people currently surviving in and defending Kharkiv, Ukraine, a city hit badly by the Russian attacks. This fund is delivering much needed supplies to the volunteers in Kharkiv.


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