Not sure this is the best place to post this, but I think it's a problem a lot of us are having now: Given the recent news, I've been struggling a lot with hopelessness about the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear war. It's become a major impediment to both my mental health and my ability to care about EA causes. I've been thinking of things my family could realistically do in the event that things appear to be moving southward (packing bags and having a plan to getting out of the area if we have enough warning, and planning on ways to end things quickly if we don't). But I'm still pretty horrified at it all and finding it hard to function.

Any advice? How do you keep enough hope to keep at it?

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Very sorry to know that you're feeling this way. And yes, I think this is a perfectly good place to post this question. A good community should also be there to support its members during times like these. Here are a few things that come to my mind.

Avoid doom-scrolling

Much like for the first few weeks of the pandemic, we all feel the compulsive need to get constant updates on what's happening in Ukraine. But each new tweet or update on The Guardian's live feed doesn't really add much information to your knowledge of the situation. Worse, it can give you the impression that things are continuously worsening while they have only "stably worsened". In this kind of situation, I find it useful to:

  • choose one way to be updated on the situation (reading a specific newsletter that I like, listening to a daily podcast in the morning), stick to it, and avoid other low signal-to-noise sources throughout the day.
  • favor things that summarize the situation so far, rather than continuously tell me how it's evolving. As a stats-oriented person, I find it more useful to check this forecast on Metaculus every few days, rather than reading every bit of news about nuclear threats.

Take a step back

If you feel overwhelmed, maybe it's also good for a short period to browse EA-related websites a little less. By the very nature of our focus on the long-term future of humanity, we've all been very caught up by the renewed prospect of a nuclear war for the last couple of weeks. And so if you're already seeing it mentioned everywhere in non-EA media, maybe reading in-depth EA analyses on top of that might not be the best thing for you right now.

Accept that you can't really do much

Somewhat relatedly, the EA community focuses on how to do the most good, and how to fix things. And so it's natural for all of us to wonder exactly the same thing now. And while I do think that, on the margin, we can do some things to help steer the discussion in the right direction (e.g. explaining to people why the idea of a No-Fly zone is very bad), it's also important to accept that, right now, the main stakeholders are basically elected officials and army generals, and there isn't that much we can do in the very short term to "solve the situation" like we always try to.

Try to see the bigger picture

By far the most likely outcome is that this crisis will be solved at some point, without any nuclear weapon being fired. And while the geopolitical equilibrium will be different, we'll most likely go back to working on the many other very important problems of the world that we all feel so passionate about. For example, even in the current context, I've personally found the announcement of the FTX Future Fund to be a great source of hope for the future, and I'm very excited to see what it's going to allow the EA community to do in the coming years.

Don't blame yourself for feeling this way

While I don't think this is the end of the world as we know it, it is likely to be a pivotal moment in 21st-century history (akin to 9/11), and what's happening is really pretty horrifying. Especially if, like me, you've never known anything but peace in your part of the World for your entire life. But given that the situation is already bad, you might as well spare yourself the double punishment of feeling bad about the situation and feeling bad about feeling bad.

Thanks Ed, this is really thoughtful.

+1 to the doomscrolling point — sometimes I feel like I have an obligation or responsibility to read the news, especially when it's serious. But this is almost always a mistake: in close to every instance, the world will not be a worse place if you take time away from the news.

4DonyChristie7mo
I deleted my Twitter app again and I haven't been reading the Facebook news feed for a long while.

Thank you for writing that Ed! 

Thank you, this helped me personally

I especially found the prediction market recommendation helpful. I wish I could get all my news from prediction markets

Thank you for such a thoughtful post! Really agree with this advice and I find it very helpful.

I'm sorry to hear you're having such a hard time.

A few things I do when I'm feeling really overwhelmed:

(1) Inform my feelings with facts. It sounds like you're already doing that by planning what you could do if things get worse. I wonder if you're also thinking about how unlikely a catastrophic nuclear war is as well? Of course the risk is far higher than it should be, but it's still less likely than no nuclear war at all.

I'm a policy advisor so I sometimes like to write advice for myself as if I were writing it for a politician, with a 1-page summary of the problem and then 2-3 options including which option(s) I recommend. Sometimes the best option is "Do nothing unless X". Then if I'm tempted to revisit my plans, but X hasn't happened, I can remind myself I've already thought it through and I don't need to take action yet.

(2) Talk it through. Getting my feelings out of my head helps me so much. Messaging a friend and saying "I've been really stressed, would you be free to let me talk it out?" or just meeting to with a friend generally and having the courage to bring it up when they ask "How are you doing?" My therapist also really helps me with my stress.

(3) Get out of my head and away from the source of the stress! Go swimming or running, meet up with a friend, babysit someone's kids, watch a movie... anything that gets me thinking about something else for a few hours at least.

I hope this helps. You're in my thoughts.

I find myself seeking out and examining good sources of news and evidence on Ukraine, so I've been following superforecaster and Metaculus estimates about Ukraine a lot lately. Depending on your disposition, this might be bad for mental health, but my investigations have not left me worried about nuclear war.

It strikes me that NATO is rejecting calls to intervene in Ukraine quite strongly, with the chance they will even impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine being only ~5%.

Meanwhile, Putin and his top military planners demonstrated badly impaired judgement. This led them to severe military logistical failures in the early days of the invasion, with some troops confused into thinking they would be greeted as liberators (related: POW speaks), but also to a major underestimate of how strongly the Free World would respond with sanctions. Plus, various corporations are pulling out of Russia. As a result, Russian stocks dropped nearly by half, then rebounded to a drop of about 35% before Russian markets were closed indefinitely.

So, Putin had worse judgement than almost everyone thought, including those expecting him to invade. This could be interpreted as an increased chance that he will use nuclear weapons. But I see it as Putin being severely biased, like my formerly-alive uncle who refused vaccination, rather than being insane. (The difference between these two is that a biased person is more predictable, as long as you have some idea what the biases are; measuring his biases is not easy since he's not honest, but his actions are instructive. Edit: Vlad Vexler is informative about Putin's psychology; here's some key bullet points, though note that since the invasion started, Putin is temporarily more powerful and the regime has gone beyond being just an "informational autocracy"; my sense now is that Putin wants to limit escalation to whatever gets him an appearance of victory domestically—unfortunately, he still overestimates his military powers in Ukraine and it's hard to say how he'll respond to his own failures.) Analysts remain convinced that Putin doesn't want World War 3, so that as long as the free world doesn't provoke him, he won't use WMDs. (He's likely to use horrifying thermobaric weapons, but only against Ukrainian cities.)

Like most Russian soldiers, this war probably took China completely by surprise too. While I'm concerned about China's support for Russia, overall my impression has been that China wants not only to avoid World War 3, but even to avoid secondary sanctions from the U.S. for supporting Russia too heavily. Did you know that China has an agreement with Ukraine to protect them from nuclear aggression? It is likely, then, that their support of Russia will be limited this year, and those who suffer most will be Ukrainians and Russians.

So, the point I want to make is that I don't think World War 3 is likely in the near-term, and neither (it seems) do Metaculus forecasters. The chance of WW3 before 2050 is now estimated at 20%, which is maybe 7% higher than the average probability from 2019 to 2021. Another forecast reports a 92% chance that there will be "No Non-Test Nuclear Detonations" before 2024 (down from 94% through much of 2020-2021).

No evidence I'm aware of indicates an imminent threat of nuclear war, but if you think there is a specific path to nuclear war that is underappreciated, let's maybe discuss that. Of course, even a small chance is scary... but I want to make sure that you're aware that the chance is small.

(I encourage you to also talk to people in some way that allows more back-and-forth than the forum. Here's my own Calendly and Telegram if that helps. Also see these people who are smarter than me. If you want me to point out one, go for daystar721@gmail.com )

I am personally stressed out about the world ending in various ways, mainly ones written in The Precipice; The current war isn't high in my concerns.

I'm also concerned about my own country (Israel) being destroyed somehow, as well as a few more "original" concerns.

The way I deal with it (which I am sharing not because it's the best way but just because it's what I do and you asked) is to try to do whatever short-and-long-term-happiness with saving-the-world.

The output of my algorithm is often "work out, eat well, sleep enough". My physical state really affects my mental state, and these actions seem to help me advance most of my goals.

This is just one perspective, take it with a grain of salt

I recommend a book called: A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety by Sarah Jacquette Ray - as the title suggests it's mostly about climate anxiety, however I've found that a lot of ideas on "how to keep your cool on a warming planet" can be applied to any existential-risk related crises, such as this one. One recommendation is to definitely look after oneself, since good mental and physical condition is not a luxury nowadays, it's needed to act when the time is right. Also, there are chapters on how to organize your community to act effectively. Recommended read.

 

Hi OP. I came across this post just now and wanted to see how you're doing now a couple of months down the track? I think there have been a lot of really useful points made in the comments about ways to think about the problem of nuclear catastrophe at large. It's certainly been a time of heightened concern on this issue globally. I want to say (to you and to others that may come across this post) that there is nothing (including and especially EA) that is more important than your mental health and wellbeing if you are struggling. I'm particularly aware that you are considering ways to end things quickly if a nuclear disaster got out of hand (which I am taking to mean you would consider ways to end your life). If those thoughts are sitting with you or becoming present, please reach out for help. Potential suicidal thoughts aside, it sounds like getting help with your mental health regardless might be helpful (as it can be for anyone) but especially if you're having thoughts of hopelessness and despair. If you want to talk, I am a health professional and whilst I can't replace the help that you might need/benefit from, I'm happy to talk to you (you can contact me privately) and point you in the right direction if that would be helpful. I hope you're looking after yourself regardless.

Hey there, if you are up for internet hugs, I am sending you one. Here's a few things that helped me during the past few years:

  • Imagine the worst case scenario and make a plan for it. Star the spots where I don't know what I would do, and research. The ideal course of action during a crisis is easier to see ahead of time than in the moment.

  • Build layers to support your mental health. Layers meaning that any one thing might not do it 100%, but all together they give you a foundation of support. They can include: daily walks outside, caring for a pet, eliminating/reducing alcohol, eating regularly, meditation, limiting time on screens/apps.

  • Aggressively seek out joyful things! I read so many rom coms during the Trump years. Call your friends or see them in person, buy the superpremium ice cream, get a new video game. You will know when the time for moderation hits, till then embrace the fun.

If I'm reading between the lines and suicidal ideation is part of your thinking right now, please know that 1. Lots of people have this, it's something that is normal and treatable; 2. It needs professional help to manage. If you don't have a psychiatrist, a general doctor can still prescribe meds while you find or wait for one. Therapy options are more robust. Someone already pointed to the EA page, but there are also online options that use a sliding scale for payment.

Wishing you resilience and gratitude for your courage in posting.

  • If you can do something about it - do it!
    Here is the part where you stock food, water, fuel, heating sources, pack emergency baggage, plan routes, etc. I don't know where you live but keep in mind that the worst scenario (all-out nuclear war) isn't the only one - a 'regular' war is more likely. It will also require more actions since in the case of nuclear war you might not have a chance to react.
  • If you cannot do anything about it - just stop worrying about it!
    I know it sounds easy and I know that it isn't. But in the end worrying about things you cannot change is pointless so we should try to avoid it. I have found meditation useful in calming my mind which has been churning war thoughts the better part of the last 2 weeks.
     

My immediate short-term advice would just be EdMathieu's advice - take a step back, find something else to do and focus on. But beyond that, if you wish to engage* with this long-term, here's some points that I wonder might be helpful.

*which you don't have any obligation to do, by the way, if you find it at all hard, you could just move on to other things in your life and not look back.

 - Likelihood of nuclear war erupting from Russia-Ukraine is still pretty low ( < 5% IMO). Humans aren't wired to be good at having emotions proportional to how bad things are, especially low likelihood ones. If someone tells me the odds of nuclear war are 2%, I don't fully know how to imagine 50 countefactual worlds running in parallel and imagine 49 of them coming out alright, and internalise that emotionally. In your case you might be disproportionately focussed on the 1 case where we don't.

 - Death anxiety / fear of death vary a lot from person to person. If you're on the higher end, this might (?) be something you can work on, over a period of time, perhaps with people you trust, or a professional. Death anxiety is different from a rational fear of death, wherein you take actions that avoid death, but don't feel overwhelmed or anxious about it.

 - Maybe lower your expectations for the world. This will come across as "tough love advice" so I don't know if it will or won't help you. It did help me though. The Precipice estimates 1 in 6 chance of existential risk this century. 16% is very high. And this is excluding all the scenarios that are not existential, but still terrible for those going through them. A tyranny affecting 1 billion people for another 30 years is terrible. A genocide affecting 10 million people is terrible. These are scenarios that are being excluded as not important enough to qualify as existential risk; if you include them the odds are higher. And yes, learning these facts suck, but once you've internalised them you're operating from a realistic baseline. You won't perceive each news item as an additional loss or surprise, beyond all the loss you've already come to accept. 

 - We aren't helpless, there are things we can do. (If you have some specifically strong reason why you believe we are in fact helpless as a species, do share, but otherwise the consensus isn't that we're helpless). And internalising how much there is to gain and lose might (?) help you retain motivation to work on them (if you wish to). I know a lot of people would be working to improve the future even if we (hypothetically) knew x-risk was 50%; and the fact that some people will struggle to just means even more that those who can deal with it have a duty to do what they can. (And whichever of those two brackets you're in, it's alright, nobody is judging you for not doing things you aren't capable of doing.) Maybe you can draw hope from the fact that a number of people care about and are working on these problems, irrespective of what we do.

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I'm sorry it's hitting you so hard! I find my dread comes and goes. I went through a more doom-y stage about this a few years ago, and currently I'm able to make practical plans without getting sucked into the dread.

[content: health effects of nuclear exposure]

>planning on ways to end things quickly if we don't

If you mean what I think you do, this part seems really mistaken to me. There are probably some circumstances where I could imagine this being the right call (e.g. if you're definitely dying of radiation poisoning and only have a few days left.) But even if you're very sick, it's going to be impossible to know whether you had a fatal dose.

I find hope in the fact that a lot of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were surprisingly ok afterwards. "In essence, survivors having received 1 Gy irradiation (∼1000 mSV) have a significantly elevated rate of cancer (42% increase) but a limited decrease of longevity (∼1 year)....the dominant present-day image of the aftermath of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, in line with the general perception of radiation risk, is that it left the sites heavily contaminated, that the survivors suffered very serious health consequences, notably a very high rate of cancer and other debilitating diseases, and that offspring from these survivors had a highly increased rate of genetic defects. In fact, the survivors have been the object of massive and careful long-term studies whose results to date do not support these conceptions and indicate, instead, measurable but limited detrimental health effects in survivors, and no detectable genetic effects in their offspring." (source)

On the anecdotal side, this interview with a 92-year-old Hiroshima survivor who was knocked down and burned by the blast. Due to stigma against survivors, he changed his name and just went on about his life without even his wife knowing he was a survivor.

 

Thank you, definitely appreciate this perspective--to be clear I was referring only to an extreme situation like obviously, acutely, and painfully dying of radiation poisoning. I absolutely agree that situations that appear hopeless might not be.

Hi, I'm afraid I don't have any terribly helpful advice. My family and other people I know are having the same struggle. 

The best I can come up with is that the metaculus community gives a 20% chance of WW3 breaking out before 2050. That's definitely way too high, but I assume that most of the probability mass is distributed somewhat evenly over time. The same community also places a 2% chance on a NATO nation invoking article 5 in the next year, which would presumably not equate to nuclear war in the same circumstance. 

However, I think recent events should make the EA community ask themselves and each other "what should we do if these risks increase?" At what probability of WW3 do we start shifting EA resources towards work on prevention / recovery? At what chance do we as a community start moving to safer locations? 

My family is trying to formulate a plan that's something like "if the probability of WW3 in the next year surpasses 33%, then we're going to temporarily relocate to another country until the tensions subside peacefully."Obviously that's not possible for many, but talking about it has settled our nerves a bit.  

I hope you find some peace.