Global conflict; Understanding and managing our reactions

The current situation in Ukraine has many of us feeling overwhelmed, distraught, and powerless. Canadians are asking what can we do to help? What will happen to the people caught in the combat? What will happen here at home? Will global peace and democracy be threatened? There are a number of reasons why the response to the conflict in Ukraine is so strong.

    • The global pandemic Coming back from a worldwide health crisis and lock downs, many of us are fatigued and vulnerable. Over the past two years, we’ve been isolated and have experienced difficult situations. We’ve missed social interactions and dealt with the fear of transmission of the virus, illness, economic challenges, and loss of loved ones. This has resulted in us having little in our tanks and feeling like the reserves are empty. We’re tired and now we’re shocked by yet another global crisis.

    • Fear of the unknown Russia is a nuclear power and fear of escalation can lead to anxiety. If many countries get involved, how will that affect the safety of Canadians? What does Canada’s involvement look like? These are unknowns that can cause us to fixate on the possible outcomes. Some people have noted doom scrolling behaviour which refers to constant scrolling through newsfeeds and media posts to learn of worst-case scenarios or potential outcomes. The need for more information can lead to increased anxiety because at this point there’s no certainty.

    • Lived experiences As Canadians, many of us have firsthand or generational experience of escaping from danger and conflict. This includes witnessing violence and fleeing persecution, poverty, or famine. Images and sounds of the current conflict can trigger memories of earlier experiences and losses. For racialized and indigenous Canadians, traumatic experiences of discrimination and victimization may also be triggered. For those of Ukrainian heritage, the images can trigger deep reactions and for those who are trauma survivors, the images can trigger memories and experiences. “Research on media exposure to violence and conflict indicates that being an observer comes at a real psychological cost, particularly the longer we watch, and when we have our own history of trauma.”[1] Seeing refugees fleeing their homes and cities under attack reminds those who have experienced these types of situations of the violence and uncertainty they lived through.

How to cope and help each other manage:

Dr. E. Alison Holman, a researcher at the University of California who studies the physical and mental health effects of exposure to collective trauma, was asked about what to make of being an observer of the Russian invasion. She strongly recommends curtailing news consumption.

Website and apps include algorithms designed to keep users scrolling which increases exposure to disturbing images, setting us up in a vicious cycle which can be particularly harmful to survivors of past trauma.

Research shows that “past exposure to violence is associated with increased media engagement after a major traumatic event, as well as more post-traumatic stress symptoms and worry about the future. In turn, this appears to trigger a cycle in which the person is at greater risk for consuming media coverage of subsequent violent events and experiencing higher acute stress following those incidents”.[2]

The best action we can take is to set boundaries and change some of our habits like limiting our news consumption, particularly of images of violence and destruction. This is not to suggest we ignore or turn away from global conflicts but that we manage our experiences of it. Encouraging more healthy activities and social interactions will lead to better outcomes.

Here are a few tips to managing well-being in the current situation:

        • Listen to, watch, and read news from trusted sources only

        • Limit scrolling and avoid constantly reading social media

        • Take time off social media and televisions news networks

        • Participate in a good mix of other activities like exercise, socializing, walking outside

        • Find ways to contribute positively to relief efforts or support refugees

Written by Judy Plotkin, Vice President, Health Solutions 
  1. Media exposure to mass violence events can fuel a cycle of distress Rebecca R Thompson, Nickolas M Jones, E Alison Holman, 2019
  2. Mental- and physical-health effects of acute exposure to media images of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq War, Roxane Cohen Silver E Alison Holman, Judith Pizarro Andersen, Michael Poulin, Daniel N McIntosh, Virginia Gil-Rivas, 2013



Judy Plotkin, M.S.W, People Corporation’s V.P. of Health Solutions holds a Bachelor of Arts and Social Work degree from Ryerson University and a Master of Social Work from the University of Toronto. She has over 25 years of progressive leadership expertise in the employee assistance, disability management, and workplace wellness industry and experience in trauma counselling and building psychologically safe workplaces.