Tough Stuff

The crisis in Ukraine: How to care about the world while caring for yourself

Is inner peace an option when there's a war going on?

After a long day of school and studying, you grab your phone and scroll TikTok, more than ready for a mental break. As usual, videos of cute puppies, DIY room decor hacks and celeb parodies fill your FYP. But then an entirely different kind of video pops up: It's footage of a girl your age in front of a destroyed apartment building in Ukraine, describing the horrific aftermath of a recent bombing.

In the past few months since the war broke out in Europe, tons of these types of videos have popped up on social media. Maybe you commented on the first one on your FYP because you wanted to show support for the Ukrainian people. A few days later, you watched a couple more so you could stay informed as the crisis deepened. Since then, because of how the algorithm works, videos showing the conflict have pretty much filled your feed.

We get it: It's overwhelming to think that, while you're worrying about acing your finals and anticipating summer break, teens on the other side of the world have become victims of an unprovoked attack and are now refugees with nowhere to live. "Social media content about the war—especially images of the atrocities in Ukraine—is definitely intense," says Bridget S., 16. "I gave to take a break from my phone after seeing so many disturbing videos." 

The Ukraine-Russia war may be the first global aggression playing out on TikTok, but it's not the first time hard-to-watch current events have been posted there (videos showing racial violence, climate disasters, political drama and news about school shootings have also found their way onto social feeds in recent years). That's why it's so important to learn how to scroll safely (especially when an algorithm decides what you see) while staying informed about what's happening in the world.

On overload 

"Humans are absolutely not designed to consume emotionally charged information consistently, over multiple platforms, at any hour of the day or night," says clinical psychologist Dr. Lucie Hemmen, author of The Teen Girl's Anxiety Survival Guide. 

Dr. Hemmen explains that if you're scrolling social media and go down a rabbit hole of anxiety-inducing videos (even a well-meaning rabbit hole to stay current on the conflict), it causes stress hormones to flood your brain. "This makes us feel awful and wears us down, eroding our mental and physical health," says Dr. Hemmen. "It's terrible for everyone but especially terrible for teenagers, who are the most vulnerable due to their lack of life experience coupled with the intensity of their emotions."

Therapist and Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety author Jamie Roberts adds that absorbing these traumatic images can send you on an emotional roller coaster: 
"If you're staying in that space of increased stress hormones, you're bouncing between anxiety, anger and depression. It's hard to find a place of calm." It's especially disorienting to scroll Instagram or TikTok watching funny videos, then suddenly be hit with something disturbing. "You go from one extreme to the other," notes Roberts.

Roberts' advice? Set boundaries—and be careful how you scroll. "If you know you just want to relax and look at cute puppies at that moment, search a puppies hashtag," she advises.

You can even use each app for a unique purpose: TikTok could be where you seek out what's going on in the world and how to make a change, while you use Instagram to focus on your fashion mood boards and keep up with friends.

Navigate tough talks

Setting limits around news consumption is important. But what happens when you and your friends set different boundaries?

Lindsey W., 16, recently experienced this divide: "I wanted to talk about the war with my friend because it's so devastating what's happening in Ukraine, but she told me she didn't want to watch the news or talk about it because it's too sad," Lindsey shares. "I got angry. I told her it was heartless of her to ignore it. We got into a huge fight about it."

So, which girl was "right?"

Both, says Roberts. "Different people have different tolerances to how much news they can engage with—and we should be respectful of other people's decisions when it comes to consuming content," she says. "Maybe someone is dealing with a lot of emotional stuff going on in their life, and they literally don't have the mental space for more. That's OK."

Dr. Hemmen agrees that it's important to respect friends' limits around how much news they can manage. "There is no ultimate right and wrong," she says.

Handle your feels

There's no doubt that millions around the world have been deeply affected by the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. So it's easy to understand why many teens are having trouble processing all the suffering and uncertainty they see on social media.

Maddy P. 15, says it's hard to move on when she finds herself upset about current events. "What's going on in Ukraine has definitely made me feel very detached from school," she says. "It's hard to truly care about tests and parties and summer plans when you know other people are going through something so tragic."

First, Roberts says to know that it's totally natural to feel sad, angry, upset or helpless when you see others in emotional pain. But she says it's also OK to feel happy, not guilty, about the amazing things happening in your own life, like summer break or end-the-year parties. "You can have immense sympathy for someone and also be excited for prom. Both things can be true," Roberts says.

And if the situation in Ukraine is getting in the way of you living your normal life, like causing you to lose focus in school or have trouble sleeping, psychiatrist Dr. Michelle Riba says it's important to talk to a therapist about how you're feeling (your parents, teacher or guidance counselor can help connect you to someone who can provide a safe space to discuss your emotions.)

Take action

When tragic events unfold before our eyes, many of us are left feeling completely helpless (and, yes, sometimes even hopeless.) This has been especially true with the situation in Ukraine. 

Reagan A., 16, has been struggling with these emotions: "Sometimes during class, my mind flashes back to disturbing pictures or videos I saw on Instagram the day or night before," she reveals. "I feel horrible—and powerless."

The silver lining here is that you aren't powerless. There are many organizations raising money specifically to help the people (and animals) who were displaced and are now in need of shelter, food and medical attention. Donating dollars or volunteering your time is a great start to helping those in Ukraine who need so much.

As dramatic events in our world continue to unfold, know that protecting your own mental health is as important as caring about those affected. While you can't control the outcome of a global crisis, you *can* create space to cope in healthy ways. 

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this story originally ran in our June/July 2022 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.


by Emily Laurence | 5/17/2022