When we humans are faced with dangers and threats, we deal with it in different ways. We can look fear in the eye, get the best possible information, and then act accordingly. Or, we can choose to avoid the problem altogether to escape the inevitable anxiety. The threat that nuclear weapons represent is so overwhelming to most people that many choose the second option, refusing to think about it. Leaders, like the rest of us, are equipped with the same psychological defense mechanisms, which under pressure can lead to irrational actions.
“That won’t happen to me” is a defense mechanism that we humans use to not worry about anything that we know could happen to ourselves or our loved ones. These filters allow us to maintain a superficially safe distance from a reality that can be difficult to understand or accept.
The risk with shielding is that we slowly get used to the false sense of security, but the feelings of anxiety, powerlessness and guilt are still there. These feelings stem from a deeper fear of not being in control of our destiny, and can prevent us from realizing the ways that we can make a difference, on a personal and global level. We become passive, resigned and uncommitted to face challenges head on, big and small.
The nuclear threat is both diffuse and overwhelming. Looking it in the eye can lead to despair. At the same time, those who can bear to act and work for nuclear disarmament often find that even seemingly small efforts can make one feel more hopeful and less dejected.
This is how concerns about nuclear weapons can be managed
It is only natural that thoughts about nuclear weapons and their consequences arouse such negative feelings. Nuclear weapons represent an existential threat. Because of the catastrophic consequences that would arise on a global scale, the potential use of these weapons creates an overwhelming anxiety around the planet and humanity’s survival.
Tips on how to manage your nuclear anxiety
1. Focus on the facts
We have evaded nuclear war thus far because there are experts constantly working to ensure that these weapons are never used again. Reminding yourself of the important work being done to curb this threat is key so you don’t have time to dwell on the catastrophic scenarios your anxiety cooks up.
2. Focus on your breathing
It may help to focus on your breathing for a while if you suddenly feel anxious. Deep breathing often calms anxiety.
3. Sort through your feelings
Sometimes feelings of anxiety can arouse other anxieties you have. Try to sort through these feelings and figure out which are connected to the threat of nuclear weapons and which might be connected to other concerns in your life. Understanding the root causes of your feelings and dealing with what you can may help to reduce anxiety.
4. Take care of yourself
Taking care of oneself and those close to you, and making sure to eat well, get exercise, fresh air and good sleep are all important for your general mental and physical health. Establishing health habits will better equip you to manage the anxiety and stress that accompanies the threat of nuclear weapons.
Journaling or talking about negative feelings can be helpful for some. You can also focus on activities that you know you enjoy and that make you feel good as a way to re-center yourself.
Tips on how to talk to others about nuclear weapons and their consequences
1. Prepare the Call
Nuclear weapons can be perceived as a difficult topic to talk about. When you want to discuss a difficult issue like this with others, it’s good to do some preparation. First, it’s good to make sure it’s okay to bring up the topic. One way to prepare yourself and the person you want to talk to is to ask if there is interest in discussing the topic and set aside time specifically for the conversation. It’s good to keep in mind that people have different ideas about what a nuclear war might entail and tend to handle emotions like anxiety very differently. Keeping an open mind is crucial.
2. Confirm feelings
Talking about difficult things often stirs up heavy emotions, which is good to be aware of in order to address them in a respectful way. Emotions are important in this context. Being able to express and name your feelings is a way to confront them and begin the healing process. It often has a calming effect to be in an environment with people who understand and validate one’s feelings.
3. End with a reconciliation
Before ending the conversation, check in with each other to ensure that everyone is feeling okay to avoid any tension that can arise from difficult conversations.
Human defense mechanisms
Faced with great threats, people use various defense mechanisms to deal with the strong emotions that would otherwise overwhelm us Whether that’s consciously dismissing any thoughts on the subject, or unconsciously repressing any thoughts to avoid such feelings, reality is denied which can lead to locked thought and action patterns.
Usually, people avoid talking about nuclear weapons altogether because of the dire consequences these weapons bring about. As well, the nuclear threat is considered too technical and too overwhelming, and therefore something left to experts or politicians. People will use these excuses to deny the responsibility we all have to reckon with this wicked problem. When the reality of a situation, personal or otherwise, is too much to bear, denial often kicks in. One of the most basic psychological defense mechanisms is denial. Doctors are familiar with this reaction. They see patients who do not accept serious diagnoses, and they see relatives who have difficulty accepting the death of a close relative.
The implication of mass death that accompanies nuclear weapons is no different. Some may understand the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the number of deaths in numbers as well as the physical damage that can be caused, but the emotions that should be associated with a deeper understanding of these consequences are not there.
The denial of the nuclear threat is due to several factors. First, the consequences of a nuclear war are so enormous that they become abstract and unthinkable. Instead, we adapt to a world with nuclear weapons, telling ourselves that since no nuclear explosion like Hiroshima and Nagasaki has happened in over 75 years, it will probably never happen again. Or, precisely because of the immense destructive nature of these weapons, no one would dare use them again. Either way, most of us have faith that reason will ultimately prevail.
Such defense mechanisms can be useful for us humans to function in everyday life. We are aware that life includes many dangers, but we physically cannot take in everything we know on an emotional level. Threats that we cannot influence, such as natural disasters, easily end up in the distance. The idea of a nuclear war falls into the same category. We can admit that the risk exists but feel unable to influence it. The sheer size of the threat instills a sense of powerlessness.
At the same time, many who work with the threat of nuclear weapons use feel that their involvement helps to reduce anxiety and worry. The experience of acting with other like-minded people, counteracts the feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness.
Many young people today are rightly concerned about global warming and the resulting climate change. They understand that this threatens the existence of millions, if not billions, of people and can create catastrophic environmental destruction. The threat of nuclear weapons poses the very same risks, and thus be considered interconnected.
Making decisions under pressure
Today we know a lot about how people act under pressure. Within certain limits, fear and tension can cause an individual to act rationally and thus perform better than they otherwise would. If the fear and anxiety reach a certain level, however, it can negatively affect our behavior. We fall back into fixed thought patterns and become less inclined to find new and constructive solutions to the threat we face. As the fear of the enemy is reinforced by propaganda and political tension, the pressure on political and military leaders increases.
In such a situation, any action often seems better than inaction. In a very tense political and military situation, we must imagine state leaders who are tired and exhausted, with difficulty concentrating, who are worried about different opinions, surrounded by some who want to act and others who are paralyzed by action. Nobody wants to use nuclear weapons – that’s something we must believe in – but the risk of use still increases dramatically in a serious crisis.
A crisis in the political sense is a situation where one’s own high-priority goals are threatened. In a political crisis, important decisions are often made in small groups or by the leader himself, which can mean that stressed leaders lose contact with experts at a lower level who may object to the decisions made. Managers often choose employees who agree with them as advisors, regardless of their expertise.
Although group decisions are usually better and more reliable than decisions made by an individual, under certain circumstances groups tend to act in ways that increase rather than decrease risk. One risk is yielding to a strong leader. Political and military groups are particularly vulnerable here because those who support their leaders are often rewarded.
In addition, military training emphasizes obedience to authority. Interesting in this context is that many studies show that groups usually take greater risks than individuals. It has also been shown that lower level groups in a crisis situation may tend to report what they think their superiors would like to hear. Therefore, uncertain information from radar screens can be reported as clear facts to avoid challenging authority, even though there is a great deal of uncertainty.
The military likely does what it can to prevent human and technical error. But the risk is always there. We also know that people sitting in front of radar screens and control buttons are often in isolated places with limited contact with family and friends. The work is often monotonous and boring, which can lead to incorrect observations and impaired mental ability.
We know that irrational leaders can rise to power. But we also know that even rational leaders can misjudge situations due to direct misinformation, misinterpretations, or bad advice. We also know that state leaders can suffer from insomnia, stress, old age and/or chronic illnesses that impair judgement.
Of course, all the difficulties mentioned become greater in a crisis where time to think and respond is limited. The situation becomes critical because the threat often develops quickly with demands for rapid response. It is not uncommon for war to result from decisions made in such a high-pressure situation.