After over two years of bouncing from one COVID-19 variant to another, the conflict in Ukraine has put people on the edge and has left many across the world feeling stressed and anxious. The global pandemic has already had a devastating toll on mental health, and the news of the war has only compounded pre-existing feelings of fear and uncertainty, increasing anxiety.
People removed from the conflict may be wondering why their mental health is suffering as a result of the news and images they’re seeing. Part of this can be explained by the fact that our brains are designed to scan for threats to protect us from potential danger. This can lead to an almost unstoppable, constant scouring of the news to help us prepare for the worst – a phenomenon many might know better as “doom scrolling”.
The physical effects of anxiety
Wars obviously alter the psychological health of populations directly exposed to violence. As a result, people suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. According to a report prepared by The World Health Organisation (WHO), the outbreak of war in Ukraine has affected us all and will affect us for a long time to come. It is understandable to feel different feelings, worries and fears. Fear is a natural feeling that warns people of dangers and threats (Jüttemann, 2013). The feeling of anxiety alerts the body and is subject to a normal stress reaction, which increases the adrenaline excretion. Humans weigh the danger of a situation and assess options for action to be able to take appropriate defensive measures. These typically consist of reactions such as flight, waiting or attack. There are physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety which can cause panic attacks. The physical manifestations of anxiety can include the following: breathlessness, feelings of panic, chest pain, an increased or irregular heart rate, stomach-ache, indigestion, headache, insomnia and many more. Anxiety can cause psychological dissociative disorders, such as depersonalization and emotional hibernation – the experience of feeling unreal, detached, and often, unable to feel emotion.
Compared to the dramatic events in Ukraine, the state of mind of people living in different countries seem quite minor and it is difficult not to feel guilty when our daily lives remain unchanged. However, it can cause a very dangerous syndrome called a syndrome of the privileged, which often leads to neglecting ones’ own needs and not taking care of one’s own resources. Being trapped by guilt also prevents us from acting.
The war in Ukraine is having a devastating impact on families and especially children of different ages. People are desperate for safety, so many of them managed to flee and there are increasingly more Ukrainian students in different schools across Europe.
Teachers need to know how to behave in this crisis situation, how to support the students who have suddenly appeared in the classroom and how to integrate them with the group. It is not an easy task as each student is different, has a different situation and teachers must show empathy, pedagogical intuition and tact.
What can you do as a teacher?
It is worth thinking how to communicate in the classroom without using words, as some Ukrainian students may have trouble understanding both you as their teacher and their new peers. It is good to rely on non-verbal communication strategies first, such as drawing or mime. Here are more ideas:
- You may ask your students to share and discuss a colour, a symbol or an image that represents how they are feeling.
- Students can mime what they feel using cards or gestures.
- You can create a ‘box of fears’ where everybody can put a slip of paper with written or drawn fear they may be experiencing.
- You can use picture and story books to help children understand relevant concepts and to think about their treatment of others.
- You can do process drama using metaphors and symbols to talk about difficult issues
- You can make a gratitude jar where students and teachers can insert sentences expressing what they are grateful for (little things which they experience every day)
Providing a safe haven
It is important to find time to listen when a child wants to talk without pushing it. Sometimes pupils will not want to talk – they might be in a hibernation state or they may have coped with the stress and do not want to come back to it. Avoid making assumptions about students’ experiences and let them know that you are available to talk, if needed. Building a ‘class contract’ with clear rules, which can be applied in crisis situations in the classroom can be useful. Try to be flexible and agile as much as possible. As with all difficult topics, teachers should be aware of the emotional impact the events have on students so they need to pay close attention to students who may have family members in conflict regions and who might be worried about how this crisis might impact them here. Teachers need to provide a safe venue for students to process, ask questions and be given context to understand current events as they happen. Noticing students’ strengths, their pride in their culture, their resilience, and the contributions they make to the school community seems to be also very beneficial.
Building emotional resilience
It is a very demanding situation for all of us and nobody, especially teachers will manage to handle the whole range of problems they have been facing without taking care of their own personal resources. In stressful situations we need a lot of good energy to support our system and our emotions. It is extremely important to learn how to build emotional resilience, sometimes called emotional agility which is the ability to bounce back emotionally from stressful situations. First of all, accept the feelings and thoughts that come up – all of them are important, even those difficult ones. Acceptance helps to deal with difficult matters. Avoid cognitive traps (mental errors) such as catastrophic thinking (expecting the worst possible outcome and believing you won’t cope with it as it occurs) or tunnelling (paying attention only to the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring all the positive.) Stop hanging in your thoughts, live in the moment, appreciate little things and control things you can control. It will give you a sense of agency.
It is essential to remember that there can be no helping others without self-care and self-compassion. Allow yourself to ask for help and believe in goodness.
Want to learn more? Watch the “Teaching and learning in the face of conflict” webinar recording.
Jüttemann, G. (2013). The Evolution of the Psyche in the History of Humanity (ed.). Lengerich: Pabst Science.
Alicja Ga??zka is a Professor at the University of Silesia, a psychotherapist, psychologist, linguist, a licensed coach, and an international teacher trainer.
A President of ICI (International Coaching Institute) in Poland and a head of the Language Centre FUTURE in Poland, she is an author of over 300 articles published in Polish and English. She is also the creator of a Future Learning System language teaching methodology, based on cognitive and positive psychology and process drama.
An active member of IDEA, National Drama Association and IATEFL and co-author of
“Process drama for second language teaching and learning-a toolkit for developing language and life skills”, (Bloomsbury, 2021), her main interest is in psychology and drama in the ELT classroom.
Professor Ga??zka is a coordinator and participant in many international projects, including two Special Interest Groups, Psychology in ELT and Drama in ELT in IATEFL, Poland. A regional adviser for Trinity College London in Poland, Alicja works across two main sectors: Medicine and Education. She actively works with teachers, school managers and pupils on developing their wellbeing and resilience.