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The Ukraine – threat, uncertainty, and distress knows no borders

Written by Mark Freeston

Apparently, the pandemic is over. Or we just need to get on and live with it – despite the multiple uncertainties, current and potential threats that may arise … but that is another blog.


Now we have the invasion of Ukraine… very real threat and very real uncertainty. First for the people of Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora, then their neighbors, the larger regions around them, and the rest of the world. Not forgetting the people of Russia who bravely oppose the policies and the invasion, and those who have simply been caught up in their country’s actions despite their personal view.


A new cold war? This one not fought by proxy around the world, but across contiguous borders. We are probably seeing a new start. A new threat of nuclear war? The risks probably have increased, but we hope not. A new large scale energy crisis? Almost certainly, but what this will look like remains uncertain in scope, impact, duration. The invasion (like coronavirus) contributes to broader uncertainties in multiple areas which we are all feeling.

Back to the Basics of Uncertainty Distress


Uncertainty and threat lead to distress. Reducing people’s distress will help. They will then be able to better meet the challenges of supporting family, friends, the people caught up in various ways in this situation, supporting the humanitarian relief efforts, or through supporting principles such as national identity, nationhood, free speech, democracy, and more broadly human rights.


Managing information will help.

We have rolling news, a different set of high-profile, credible and often charismatic reporters and commentators replacing others, reports from people on the ground which are compelling, eyewitness accounts that speak to the best and worst of human behaviour… as much information as we could possibly want. However, we can’t “information our way out” of this never-been-seen-before, rapidly evolving, and unpredictable situation. However, much as we want certainty and people may demand it, no one can know the future. Some may use knowledge about the past to identify more or less likely versions of the future. As we do with weather forecasts … But does anyone expect weather forecasts to be accurate all the time?


For those of us not actually in Ukraine (their situation is very different and access to up-to-the minute information may be crucial) most of us need basic and reliable facts about what has happened on a reasonable time frame. We do not need it every minute, hour, or even several times a day. Rolling news, intensive coverage, and special reports are mostly about what we do not know, conflicting information, things that may have happened that require confirmation, and people speculating about things that could happen, but haven’t happened yet. Lots of information may give an illusion of control but actually amplifies uncertainty.

As I understand things, the BBC actually reduced the frequency of news updates in World War II, because they were not helpful/and early consumer research showed not wanted. In a world where radio was the only source of frequent information, what seemed to be more helpful was regular, reliable programming not about the war that built safety, community, support along with updates at a predictable frequency that told people what they needed to know to go about their everyday lives. There will have been censorship and propaganda as well, but more information does not necessarily mean more accurate or more neutral information – just more information from different viewpoints. Given the surfeit of information we have today, some people may need help to manage and then rebalance information. Key Points

  1. More information does not mean more certainty. Consuming less information, but better information (i.e., the facts as they have been established now) may be more helpful. People will choose their own sources that they choose to trust in relative terms, but multiplying sources and more frequent checking is unlikely to help them feel more certain.

  2. Journalists, “experts”, commentators, analysts acting in good faith may contribute to uncertainty – they will probably (in good faith and in terms of their role) point out what we don’t know, should know, the inconsistencies, contradictions, possibilities, etc.

  3. All information is not equal – there are different motivations to provide and spread information that reflects the intentions of the source rather than “in the public good”. These include, recognition, notoriety, attention, profit, influence, and even deliberate mischief in the case of misinformation.

  4. What is happening in Ukraine is of vital importance. We may see involvement or our role in different ways, but we may be better able to support or contribute if we are less distressed. This may mean rebalancing the information we are getting about the situation in Ukraine with other information. This could mean catching up on what is happening with friends and family, in the local community, in areas of life we are normally connected with, and in which we find value and solace. Spending time catching up with “the rest of our world” may make us better able to face the challenges of the current situation in Ukraine.

Friend of Unicorn Patricia Murphy (@Mspmurphy) has set up a JustGiving page to support the Ukrainian Association of Cognitive Behavioural Therapists during this crisis – you can donate here. Take part in Uncertainty Distress research here You can follow Unicorn on our website or on Research Gate

Email us on intolerance.uncertainty@newcastle.ac.uk

Twitter: @Covid19Study




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