How do you cope with nuclear anxiety? We ask an expert

Conversations with experts

Taras Young, a historian who researches and writes about Britain’s preparations for nuclear attack, shares coping strategies

If the news about Ukraine has left you feeling sad and scared, you’re not alone. What’s known as “nuclear anxiety” has been around since the second world war – from the late 1950s (when the threat loomed so large that Kellogg’s gave away “atomic submarines” in Corn Flakes), to five years ago when North Korea began testing missiles. Can the past show us how to deal with it today? I asked historian Taras Young, author of Apocalypse Ready, which explores the ways governments ask citizens to handle disasters.

I’m already feeling better just talking to you, because it gives me perspective: we’ve been through this before, we can get through it again.
People fall into one of two camps. They either grew up thinking about it, worrying about it, or they just ignored it. My folks never seemed to worry. So it comes down to the individual.

The thing is, we still don’t know how much of a toll nuclear anxiety takes. A Finnish study found teens who worried about the Gulf war were more prone to depression later. But another study said it was the level of worry that mattered, and that a bit of concern was normal and had no lasting effect.
The Home Office commissioned a report in 1981, which is one of the few times the government has looked into the psychological side of things. It said that when you imagine people panicking, you’re picturing cars queueing up to get out of the city. That’s not panic. That’s a rational response, because you’re trying to get away from the threat.

So wait, the people trying to book bomb shelters right now are just being rational? No wonder Greater Manchester council advised people in the 80s to deal with anxiety by discussing how life might change post-apocalypse over a game of cards.
That would be good advice if the bomb was about to drop but there was no imminent threat. Panic sets in when people don’t have enough information, but also when there’s too much. The location of bunkers is probably towards the “too much information” end.

But in our 24-hour news cycle, too much information is hard to avoid.
Mainlining news all day is very bad for you.

So true. But short of ignoring the whole thing, I’m not sure how anyone could avoid feeling shaken.
According to that Home Office report from 1981, the only people who would not be affected would be the 1% it estimated were psychopaths, who would generally be intelligent and rational. The author of that report separately said psychopaths might be the people who could take charge after a nuclear disaster.

The Home Office seeing upsides to emotionlessness explains a lot about its current position on refugees. But I’ve always been a believer in the power of unfettered joy in times of anguish. And don’t forget meditation. I have a theory that one of the reasons eastern practices have boomed recently is because of stuff such as war anxiety and climate doom.
The same thing happened in the 60s. And in the 80s: when people started realising the futility of nuclear war, there was a culturally fun response – satire, music, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, that kind of thing.

So what you’re saying is history wants me to do some yoga and then hit the clubs? Well, who am I to argue? Thanks Taras, it’s good to understand that a bit of worry isn’t anything to worry about.
Cheers, Coco.

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