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“Nuclear anxiety”: How can you deal with anxiety about war?

By Grant Stoddard

Sep 1, 20238 min read minute read

Reviewed byApril Kilduff, MA, LCPC

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of the perceived global threat to existential risks. The clock’s hands are set to a specific time, representing the minutes to midnight, with midnight symbolizing a global catastrophe. It’s periodically adjusted by scientists and other experts who maintain the clock and move its hands per their assessment of global security threats. 

While climate change ranks high among those risks in 2023, the clock was created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, in response to the use of atomic weapons by the US. The Bulletin initially set the clock at seven minutes to midnight to emphasize the destructive power of atomic weapons. In 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bomb, and the clock moved to three minutes to midnight.

In 2023, a grave-faced panel from the Bulletin announced that they’d set the clock to an unprecedented 90 seconds before midnight, down from the 100-second benchmark of the two previous years. While this change was partly due to the mounting dangers of climate change, biological threats, and disruptive technologies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the prospect of nuclear weapons being used in that conflict was the main reason for the minute hand’s advancement.  

In this article, we’ll discuss the effect that an increased risk of the nuclear threat—and war-related fears—can have on people in general, and how these anxieties and fears can be related to a mental health condition called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as well as how people suffering from these fears can deal with the impact of so-called “nuclear anxiety” in their lives.

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The impact of Nuclear Anxiety

There’s little doubt that anxiety about the current war in Ukraine—and about geopolitical conflict generally—is leading to intense fear and worry across the globe. A 2023 Czech study found that over 40% of young people felt depressed by the possibility of nuclear war in their lifetimes and felt that the likelihood of such events was high. What’s more, over 60% of them agreed with the statement that “mankind seems on a sure track to self-destruction.”

These fears and anxieties can end up consuming people’s lives, especially in response to particularly major or alarming news about war. People may end up constantly searching news reports, stockpiling goods for survival, and struggling to sleep, eat, and be productive in their daily lives.

These feelings and behaviors may be a sign of an anxiety disorder like GAD (where one worries almost constantly about real-life fears) but when they are accompanied by repeated actions or mental behaviors done to seek relief from distress, this can be an indication of a different, highly misunderstood mental health condition: OCD.

What is OCD?

OCD is a mental health disorder that involves intrusive, distressing thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that you cannot dismiss for the cognitive glitches they are. Instead, by being seen as dangerous or threatening, these thoughts become “obsessions”—the O in OCD. 

It’s important to remember, however, that a core characteristic of OCD is to make people doubt their motives, values, or rationality. Obsessions about harm coming to one’s child may lead a parent to question whether they may want to cause their child harm. A highly rational person might feel intensely worried that bad thoughts could contaminate others, despite understanding otherwise. These suspicions are why OCD is sometimes called “the doubting disorder”—it can turn the faintest “what if?” into a catastrophe.  

This uncertainty produces a tremendous amount of anxiety. To relieve it, someone with OCD will engage in repetitive behaviors and/or mental rituals called compulsions—the “C” in OCD. For example, a parent with intrusive thoughts about harming their child might try to keep distance between themselves and their child to avoid any possibility of harming them. Are these compulsions effective in reducing anxiety in people with OCD? Yes. However, the relief is always short-lived, and the anxiety will come back as soon as the stimulus that triggers their obsession reappears—which it always will, since perfect safety or 100% certainty are impossible to attain for anyone, with or without OCD. In turn, one’s fears and obsessions become more intense over time, the compulsions get more complex and time-consuming, and the cycle continues.

Most people have enough insight into their condition to know that their obsessions aren’t in line with their core values and beliefs. They may know, on some level, that their obsessions aren’t actually serving them—but their distress feels so real that they resort to compulsions time after time. 

But what if, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the possibility of one’s fears coming true is higher than at any other time in history? Even if the likelihood remains extremely low, what does someone with such anxiety do with that information, exactly? 

Nuclear fears and OCD

The prospect of a nuclear war can profoundly affect people with anxiety disorders, in addition to those with OCD. Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worry, fear, and heightened stress responses, and the threat of a nuclear conflict can worsen these symptoms significantly. 

For people with OCD, the fear of nuclear war can become a central obsession. They might constantly ruminate on the possibility of a nuclear event, envision catastrophic scenarios, and fixate on details or feared outcomes related to such an event, driven by a need for certainty or safety. This obsession can lead to severe anxiety and interfere with their ability to concentrate on daily tasks or engage in meaningful activities.

As we mentioned, as a way to alleviate their anxiety, people with OCD will engage in compulsions. “In the context of nuclear war anxiety, they might engage in rituals like constantly checking news updates, monitoring radiation levels, or stockpiling supplies,” says Dr. Patrick McGrath, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. “These behaviors not only take up time and energy but also reinforce the belief that their fears are real and threatening, perpetuating the anxiety cycle.”

The unpredictability of global events and the lack of control that anyone has over nuclear war scenarios can be particularly distressing for those with OCD, as control is a central issue in their disorder. They may feel helpless, overwhelmed, and trapped in a never-ending cycle of intrusive thoughts and compulsive actions.

“People with OCD may find it challenging to relate to others who do not share their intense anxiety about nuclear war,” adds Dr. McGrath. “They may isolate themselves to avoid conversations or situations that trigger their fears, leading to social withdrawal and loneliness. 

As you’d expect, this isolation doesn’t do anything good for their mental health. 

“The possibility of nuclear war is an excellent example of something an individual can’t do much about. Whether we have OCD or not, we all have to live our lives knowing that things beyond our control—bad things—could happen. But this uncertainty doesn’t have to rule our lives. Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP) is the best thing in our arsenal to help people do that.”

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Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP)

Created and developed at the height of the nuclear arms race, ERP is a highly effective treatment for all forms of OCD. ERP aims to break the OCD cycle by exposing people to their fears and preventing their compulsive responses, ultimately allowing them to learn that anxiety dissipates on its own, and teaching them healthier coping strategies.

During ERP, a specially trained therapist will gradually expose you to situations or stimuli that trigger your obsessions. In the context of someone who has obsessions about nuclear war, this might involve discussing, researching, or even simulating scenarios related to nuclear war. Exposures might even include reviewing the Doomsday Clock timeline, reading the Bulletin’s most recent announcements, or addressing that it’s closer to midnight than at any time since the clock was created. 

Crucially, the therapist will guide you to resist the urge to perform your usual compulsions—things like checking the news constantly, seeking reassurance from others, intentionally distracting yourself, avoiding the news, or stockpiling supplies. Instead, you’ll learn to tolerate the anxiety and discomfort triggered by these obsessions without engaging in compulsive behaviors that only reinforce your fears. This process allows you to recognize that while your worries may always be there in some form, you can learn to accept uncertainty as a fact of life—even uncertainty about major fears. And as you and your brain learn to accept uncertainty and discomfort, you achieve the long-term relief from OCD you are craving, instead of short-term relief from doing compulsions.

ERP is highly effective for OCD, with research showing it leads to significant symptom reduction in most cases. No matter what the content of your obsessions is, ERP can help you manage your fears and regain control over your life within a few months of sessions with a trained therapist. 

Start getting better today

All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. If you think you might have OCD and want to learn how it’s treated with ERP therapy, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment with the NOCD Care team to learn more about how we can help you get your life back on track. 

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