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Stress and anxiety – coping with war anxiety Priory experts offer advice

Constant news about war, and terrible human suffering and destruction, can trigger significant distress, anxiety and depression, says Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Natasha Bijlani.  

“The horrors of war most certainly lead to a terrible impact on well-being. The senselessness of the tragedy, along with the consequences in all their aspects – social, economic, political, - will most certainly lead to an increase in stress and anxiety in individuals of all ages,” she says.

Such experience of “trauma” can contribute to poor physical, as well as mental, health, and when the symptoms become excessive and unyielding, “they become a problem”.

Many were already struggling with stress and anxiety, which soared during the pandemic. Inquiries for private treatment at Priory rose 52% for stress, and a third for anxiety last year.

But there are techniques people can use to help manage their stress and anxiety during these times:

Take a news break

It sounds obvious, but Dr Bijlani, of Priory’s Roehampton Hospital, says: “If you find yourself being adversely affected by the news, avoid repeatedly watching endless bulletins, which can leave you feeling helpless. Instead, identify how you are feeling and accept that it is an understandable response. Try and keep connected with your immediate reality and ground yourself in meaningful work or tasks to give yourself a sense of purpose and flow. Trying to focus on small, achievable goals, which could be engaging in an interesting project or having a meaningful conversation with another person, could help you rediscover some of the energy and enthusiasm that you might be lacking, and help alleviate some of your anxiety and stress. Try to avoid feeling guilty either about your emotional response to the negative external triggers or indeed to those negative triggers themselves.”

Hydrate, and sleep

“Make sure you eat regular, healthy meals and hydrate yourself, avoiding alcohol which can lead to depression and worsen anxiety. It is very easy to engage in unhealthy habits if you become stressed - such as overeating, watching too much TV and not engaging in physical exercise. Keep up with good sleep habits as quality sleep has an incredibly restorative function that many of us marginalise at our peril.”

Control your breathing

“When people get anxious they often forget to breathe properly and take shallow breaths which can worsen stress. Try and be mindful of your breathing technique and take time, even just a few minutes, on a daily basis to breathe deeply and slowly so that it becomes a regular habit. There are many resources to learn various relaxation techniques including apps such as Calm and My Possible Self.”

Dee Johnson, a Priory psychotherapist, says constant exposure to real-time threats and trauma “triggers a flood of stress hormones” preparing our bodies and our minds to think: fight, flight or freeze. “The sense of feeling powerless amid all of this leaves us with a sense of helplessness and being overwhelmed, which often manifests itself as being sleep deprived, snappy and irritated, tearful, having a knotted stomach, tearful – the lot.

“So our brain needs a bit more compassion, as well as evidence to try and turn the volume down on the stress response.”

A burden shared is a burden halved

“Taking practical action can be highly effective for anxiety – so tell people you are struggling, and you will find you are not on your own. Write down your feelings, seek professional help (counselling, support groups, GP, check if your employer offers in-house employee counselling (Employee Assistance Programmes)).

Practise kindness

“Doing an act of kindness will give respite too – so check on a neighbour, call a friend, buy a random person a coffee, plant some seeds. These small actions not only help calm ourselves but will also spread a bit of a better feeling too.”

Get creative

 “Creative activities that actually shut down the production of stress hormones … it all helps.  Any respite, no matter how brief, is going to be of benefit, from singing and dancing to a few tunes in your lounge or car, to drawing, word games (like Wordle), making something, cooking, gardening, whatever you enjoy.

“Take control in the moment; find a creative way of making meals as this may ease a small burden of financial pressure, giving yourself some element of feeling a bit less hopeless.

“Find a way you can help - donating, supporting – and practise gratitude.

“Daily small moments filled with ‘coping’ strategies will help - consistency in self-compassion will bring benefits.”

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