Following multiple recent discussions here on the Forum about managing stressful news and current affairs, particularly in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, we have put together a short summary of useful advice.
This post includes suggestions made by other members of other EA community, advice from licenced therapists, and insights based on the authors’ work on an EA mindfulness-based programme and the Effective Self-Help initiative. Our aim here is to provide a quick, practical guide to better managing your response to difficult news and situations. While the discussion here is framed in the context of the current Ukraine crisis, we believe that many of these conclusions are useful for the anxiety produced by other prevalent EA topics like existential risks.
It’s okay to feel stressed
As a starting point, it is important to acknowledge to yourself that it is both understandable and reasonable to feel stressed about the current situation in Ukraine.
We believe it is quite likely that people in the EA community may be particularly prone to high levels of stress, anxiety, and fear from events like those currently unfolding. This seems plausible given EA’s:
- Greater focus on helping others and trying to improve the world (something that is jeopardised by the current situation)
- Greater than average awareness of how the current situation could become a lot more serious (through wider greater power conflict and/or nuclear warfare)
- Familiarity with situations where there are clear positive actions we can take (with the situation in Ukraine a lot tricker to impact in contrast)
For anyone feeling particularly highly stressed or anxious about current events, we encourage you not to feel bad for feeling like this. We all have different levels of resiliency and different emotional responses to bad news and so must accept that we may react in ways that seem better or worse than others. Given this, we should avoid comparing ourselves to the responses of others.
Similarly, there is likely a large variation in what solutions are most useful for different people and so we encourage you to experiment with different approaches to managing your stress. It is more than okay to begin by simply taking a break if current events feel paralysing; only by taking care of ourselves can we sustainably help others.
In this way, one useful approach can be to actively practice self-compassion. Try to accept difficult emotions rather than trying to fix them, being curious about emotions and sensations you are feeling instead of looking to change them. Many different self-compassion exercises exist, but we recommend loving-kindness meditation, simple diaphragmatic breathing exercises, and self-compassion breaks as a starting point.
While being highly stressed can be very understandable, it isn’t helpful for anyone involved. It does nothing to help people directly suffering while reducing your wellbeing and productivity, impacting your ability to make a meaningful impact in your work (or donations) on this situation, or potential similar/ worse conflicts in future.
In this light, it can be valuable to aim at practicing compassion rather than empathic distress. In other words, aim to feel for the suffering of others while retaining an awareness of your separateness from their experience and circumstances.
Practical steps for minimising avoidable stress
Reduce/ streamline your news consumption
While it is easy to feel an overwhelming sense of importance to stay up-to-date with current affairs, the main results of this are only an increase in your stress levels and the traffic received by news and social media sites.
If you have a propensity for doomscrolling, try to begin by establishing breaks in the day from checking the news, or time caps on how long you will check certain sites for. Website blockers and timers like Freedom, Opal, and RescueTime. You can also block specific parts of a distracting website using the AdblockPlus extension.
When making a choice to distance yourself from stressful information or situations, it’s important to do this with a clear intention of improving your mental wellbeing in order to avoid it feeling like an avoidance strategy that then intensifies anxiety in the long term.
Small practical steps can make a valuable difference. As a simple, initial suggestion, consider placing your phone out of reach of your bed so you can avoid spiking your stress levels by immediately checking the news/ social media when you wake up. Alternatively, consider shifting the way you keep up with current affairs to more long-form analysis through email newsletters and prediction markets.
If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, consider taking a complete break from checking the news and then re-introduce it slowly to whatever extent feels optimal. Many people have reported substantial benefits from cutting out news consumption entirely and so we recommend experimenting with this. As an alternative, try tracking how much time you spend on different sites and slowly lowering this threshold.
Reach out for support
Find ways to share your fears and stresses with other people who can engage with your perspective. Remind yourself that you are far from alone in experiencing fear and anxiety about events in the world.
Think about people in the community who you can reach out to and look to build this network out over time. Local groups, online fellowships, and volunteering with small EA organisations all offer great ways to meet and engage with fellow EAs. As a community, situations like this offer an opportunity to build resilience in anticipation of making significant contributions to averting and mitigating future crises.
In the spirit of providing a space for people to give and receive support, we will be running a workshop with EA Anywhere on March 23rd (6pm, UTC). This will be an opportunity to share advice on managing stressful wider circumstances, as well as to raise specific struggles you may be facing with a licenced counsellor.
Don’t neglect the little things.
It’s easy to get caught in a negative spiral where stressful events make it hard to take care of ourselves in simple but important ways. Daily routines offer a sense of predictability that can help you feel in control and safe, as well as being essential for our general wellbeing.
Try to stick to and prioritise the healthy routines you already have, even leaning into them. In periods of high stress, make it easier for yourself to do these important small things. Get a little more sleep, take more frequent breaks (ideally outside), and prioritise doing the things that bring you real joy and satisfaction.
There’s a world of practices that can help with managing stress and finding greater emotional balance. If you’re currently struggling with handling negative emotions, consider trying a new strategy. We recommend Clearer Thinking’s ‘Improve your mood’ courses as a good starting point.
Focus on what you can control
When situations are out of our hands, it’s important to recognise what is and isn’t under your control. While the motivation to do something is understandable, it is necessary to accept that there is very little we can meaningfully do.
In this sense, it can be useful to adopt some of the ideas of Stoicism in focusing only on what we have control over, such as by using this exercise on locus of control or this worksheet. CBT can also offer useful perspectives, such as this article on cognitive restructuring or this checklist from Rob Wiblin.
Part of focusing on what you can control could also involve making a plan for moments where you feel particularly stressed or overwhelmed. Drawing up an emergency plan may help high-risk, low-probability scenarios of catastrophe feel a little easier to cope with and manage.
Advice from the EA community
There have been some great posts and comments on the Forum already about how best to manage your personal response to highly stressful global circumstances like the current Ukraine crisis. Given this, we have included a few quotes from different community members below:
“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”
“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.”
“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.”
“We aren't helpless, there are things we can do. … 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.”
Advice from EA Therapists
“It can be useful to practice letter-writing to ‘Past You’ at a time when you felt a lack of control about bad things happening in the world or around you that were outside your ability to change. What do you wish someone had said to you then? You can also then write a letter from an imagined ‘Future You’, who has the wisdom and compassion that you imagine your ideal self will have, and what they would say to you today.
It is also okay to focus on what you can control that has no connection to a major crisis. Helping friends or family, or contributing to some other cause area that is more tractable or clear, can help us feel less like we are “useless” just because we are not doing something about one particular situation when realistically we could not act on every issue normally anyway.”
“The following is not an exhaustive list, of course:
- Try to identify what is driving your anxiety. For example, it could be a feeling of a lack of control, fear of death, or powerlessness. Knowing what exactly is behind your anxiety can be helpful for choosing the most effective psychological interventions and strategies to regulate your emotions.
- Try to not only focus on the negative, also see the positive. For example, reading the news can be heartbreaking and can trigger many negative thoughts. On the other hand, it’s inspiring to see the courage of Ukrainians and the responses of many people around the world.
- Remind yourself that, from an evolutionary perspective, your brain is doing what it’s supposed to do. Uncertain and scary situations trigger the threat response system—a cascade of physiological and emotional reactions designed to prepare you to survive. Some people will experience more intense reactions than others, and you might be one of those who experience very intense feelings. But keep in mind that more intense emotions don't necessarily correspond to a higher probability of unwanted events. An antidote to our fight-or-flight response is engaging in self-soothing activities (e.g. compassionate friend visualization, paired muscle relaxation, relaxed breathing, etc.).”
While a situation like this is out of our control as individuals, there can be useful small actions that we can take that can also help us feel like circumstances are more manageable.
Though we claim no expertise in what may be most useful in taking direct action, we tentatively suggest these recommendations by the Polish EA group, those in Kelsey Piper’s Future Perfect article, or those mentioned in some of the posts tagged Ukraine here on the Forum.
We would like to thank Gina Hafez, Ewelina Tur, and Damon Sasi for their input as professional counsellors to the advice given above. We would also like to acknowledge the many members of the EA community, only some of whom were included above, who have offered valuable suggestions for emotional support and practical action on previous, recent Forum posts related to the current crisis.