Youth development researcher: Russia-Ukraine war impacting emotional, mental health of American youth
It’s been nearly six weeks since Russian military forces invaded Ukraine. The conflict may be some 5,000 miles away, but with social media providing 24-hour news coverage of the devastation, young people are seeing a war unfold before their eyes for the first time. Coupled with the stress of an ongoing global pandemic, today’s youth are facing a world they’ve never seen before. Diana Samek, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Human Sciences at Auburn University who studies adolescent and young adult development, addresses the mental and social impact these issues have on this young population.
Based on your research, what is the effect of the Russian war in Ukraine on those people between 11-29 years old, considering they have not experienced living during a time such as this?
As far as how this ongoing war is affecting adolescents and young adults in the USA, it certainly is taking a toll. One thing to note that among the many advances in biological, psychological and social development at this time includes increased attention to morality and a deeper understanding and commitment to stand up for what is right and just. It is difficult to hear of the mass devastation happening to civilians right now in Ukraine. It might feel less easy to ignore this war than others as it has potential ramifications for global war that could involve the U.S. in conjunction with NATO. It is a heavy load to consider and likely is causing increased stress, anxiety and concern for the future among our young folks.
Between social media and 24/7 news coverage putting images of war on our phones at a rate none of us have known before and the younger generation experiencing more screen time than most, how can they process this effectively?
The 24/7 news cycle has certainly kept us up-to-date and generally horrified for some time now. From updates on COVID-19 to breathtaking imagery of cities in Ukraine of buildings left to nothing in piles of rubble, with seemingly no concern by the attacking forces for the civilians that have died as a result. It is important to stay up to date with what is happening in the world and process our emotions and desires and calls to action. It’s important to discuss this with friends and family members and try to make sense of the world and our place in it. But it is also important to take a break.
It may be helpful to limit exposure to the 24-hour news cycle by checking it only twice a day and processing it out loud with a loved one or friend. There is also absolutely no stigma in reaching out to discuss this with a therapist, counselor or healer. They can help provide skills and practices to reign in intense emotions. It is important we try to find joy in each day despite it all. Certain meditation and mindfulness practices might help, as well as religious/spirituality practices. We should try to spend quality time with people—and even animals—that we love. Puppy cuddles help me.
What are some of the health issues, emotionally and physically, that could surface due to the stress compounded by a global pandemic and now a war?
So many, there are just so many. Greater symptoms of anxiety and depression can occur, as well as physical symptoms of aches and pains, headaches and tension. Disruptions to healthy sleep because of stress can compound over time, as it has long-term links to deficits in cardiovascular health, the health of our immune system and more.
How do these health issues ripple into everyday life? Performance in class, at work, in relationships?
Experiencing intense and prolonged levels of stress can impact executive functioning, meaning it can feel like your brain is working at a slower speed than it usually does (a.k.a., brain fog). You might feel very tired and anxious, especially if quality sleep is lacking. Excessive stress can also make us more likely to snap at friends and romantic partners, as our fuse is shorter than normal. It can be hard to pay attention and get work done. That’s OK. Our body is sending us a clear message—you are stressed, and you need help. Your body is screaming, “pay attention to me and take care of me!” And you should.
Many younger people may express feeling helpless, or even hopeless, over the war in Ukraine. What can be done to deal with these emotions? Are there practices we can put into place to find a healthy balance in handling all that’s going on in the world?
I think we all can try to leave this world a little better than we found it, regardless of our circumstances. But that kind of call to action requires you rest and take care of yourself. Find joy in life every day and get help in doing so if you need it. Therapy, psychiatry, massage, acupuncture, try it all! Find what works for you. For example, learning how to meditate was a game-changer for me, so I always like to bring it up in discussions of stress. Taking even 20 minutes in the middle of the day to lay down with ambient or nature/sound music and doing a body scan to check in where feelings of tension are, to notice that, to try to unclench your jaw or your shoulders from your ears. There are lots of free apps that can help you learn how. Just quiet time to notice what is happening in your body and mind and say hmm. Let’s try to relax all of this a bit if we can.
Notice how pretty the trees or flowers are on our walk through campus, enjoy the small things more, smile to passersby, take it all in. Exercise helps—even if it’s just a short walk! Getting those endorphins flowing will help our body regulate itself and promote better sleep, which is absolutely something a lot of people struggle with when they are stressed. Try to get outside and into nature. Do your best to eat nutritious foods. Journaling or writing about your experiences and emotions can help. But above all, let’s try to be kind to ourselves and others. It’s OK if we need extra time and support. It’s OK to feel like you need more breaks than usual. It’s OK to notice all of that.
Associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Human Sciences at Auburn University who studies adolescent and young adult development, Diana Samek.
Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.