NewsOverwhelmed by fear of war: what to do now

Overwhelmed by fear of war: what to do now

Many are stunned by what is happening in Ukraine these days. Some get downright scared. That’s understandable and okay, say psychologists. You can deal with the feeling.

Calw – The war in Ukraine was only a few days old when psychologist Susanna Hartmann-Strauss spoke to patients about it. He is now a frequent topic in the therapy talks in her practice in Calw in the northern Black Forest.

“On the one hand, with people who are reminded of their own experiences by the reports and pictures, i.e. people who have already experienced wars themselves,” says Hartmann-Strauss. These would be confronted with many triggers that bring traumatic experiences into greater awareness and can trigger or reactivate strong fears.

It can happen to anyone

But the opposite is also the case, reports Hartmann-Strauss: young people who no longer even know about wars from their grandparents’ stories. For them, war is often something abstract that has no connection to their own lives. “Due to Ukraine’s geographic proximity, the war suddenly became something concrete that extends into one’s own life.” An old mechanism for overcoming fear is the thought: That has nothing to do with me, I can’t do that here happen. But suddenly that doesn’t work anymore.

First of all, fear is a good thing, as psychology professor Jürgen Margraf from the University of Bochum says. “We need fear, fear is a guide.” She warns of danger – and so quickly that you don’t even notice it consciously. The heartbeat increases, for example you can walk better. Digestion and sex drive, on the other hand, are shut down. “You don’t need that at the moment,” explains Margraf. It is about quick action to react to a dangerous situation. And the question is: fight or flight?

This is what happens in the brain when you are afraid

In the brain, the amygdala is the control center for rapid fear and startle reactions, as Jürgen Hoyer, Professor of Behavioral Psychotherapy at the Technical University of Dresden, explains. In a dangerous moment, adrenaline pumps through the body. “It happens before you can think about it – otherwise it would be too late.” An example: when a car suddenly comes around the corner.

“But fear also arises when abstract values such as security or peace are threatened,” says Hoyer. The associated tension is regulated, among other things, by another stress system that is activated over a longer period of time – and not just in a tricky situation. The stress hormone cortisol plays the leading role here.

Experts are not surprised

The experts consider it completely normal that people in Germany, too, are afraid of the pictures and news from Ukraine these days. “We are social beings – much more social than we realize,” says Margraf. The Western world has become emphatically individual. When conflicts arise, however, groupthink reappears. “Genetically we are still primitive.”

An important factor here is the unpredictable: “We exaggeratedly fear everything that is unknown,” says Margraf. On the other hand, people tended to dramatically underestimate known risks – for example, when the cell phone is held to the ear while driving. “War is a diffuse threat, body and mind switch to a latent state of alarm,” says Hoyer. “There is no relief in sight.” And most of them had no previous experience with the subject.

When fear limits life

Fear in itself is not physically dangerous. But it becomes psychologically stressful and painful when it gets out of hand, is inappropriately strong or lasts a long time. When the time comes, experts test, for example, using standardized questionnaires. For the individual, however, this is often difficult to assess. According to Margraf, there are indications when fear restricts life, everyday actions are avoided or it causes suffering. Partners often reflect this, says Hoyer, because their lives are also affected.

As a countermeasure, the experts advise, among other things, to take time windows in which to find out about the war and ponder it. “You can think about it, but it should be productive,” says Margraf. Nobody needs two hours of specials on a loop.

distraction helps

It is important to find a distraction that is as meaningful as possible and takes up the full attention. That can vary from person to person, says Hoyer – from playing with children to filing tax returns, the possibilities are unlimited. “Every meaningful action in favor of personally important things pushes fear into the background. If you can do this without denying or trivializing fear, that is the mentally healthy way.”

Margraf says: “The best thing is when you can control something.” Predictability is second best. And you should look for positive things, go for a walk with friends, for example, and share your thoughts. It is also wrong to do without beautiful things. “You can also laugh and have fun, even though there is war.”

Important for children: stick to routines

Psychologist Hartmann-Strauss advises sticking to routines, especially with children. “Nothing gives more security than when your teeth have to be brushed in the evening.” And you can see how you can act constructively yourself: “What can I actually do today and here to help? How can I show solidarity?”

It is important to first acknowledge that you are afraid. “And then express your own fears clearly,” advises Hartmann-Strauss. Hearing from other people that they share your fears is good. “Fear that is not articulated often takes on irrational traits and makes me feel increasingly helpless and powerless.” dpa

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