Nuclear War Anxiety Is Back. Here’s How to Manage It.

It’s OK, and even logical, to be afraid. But don’t give in to panic.

Cold War anxieties are back. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Russia’s veiled nuclear threats, have understandably fueled worry about nuclear war. This has shown itself online in the usual ways, with a flurry of tweets and a spike in Google search traffic, as well as slightly less usual ways: NUKEMAP, a website where people can see if their homes would be destroyed by a specific nuclear bomb dropped on a specific location, is so inundated with traffic that its creator is having trouble keeping it online.

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There’s both “good” news and “bad” news (though the entire war is obviously very bad). The good news is that the risk of nuclear war is nothing new, and we might not be any closer to an outright nuclear war today than we were a few weeks ago. The bad news is that most people don’t realize the risk never really went away. The very existence of nuclear weapons means they always remain a threat. “If you keep [nuclear weapons] forever, they will eventually be used. At some point, someone is going to suffer the consequences,” Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, told me in 2020.

In any case, if you're reading this, you’re probably thinking about nuclear war now in a way you perhaps haven’t before, and being scared of the most powerful weapons ever devised by humanity—over which a few powerful madmen have basically unilateral control—is a fair thing to be worried about. The launch of even a single nuke would change the world and have devastating consequences. A nuclear war would cause death on a scale so large it’s hard to imagine, and right now, it feels like we’re closer to one than we’ve been in a generation.

But that’s not exactly true. There’s a history, even a recent history, of the nuclear Sword of Damocles edging perilously close to initiating the end of all things. There’s also some good signs from recent events that with regard to nuclear weapons specifically, Russia is de-escalating tensions right now (U.S. President Joe Biden, for his part, has dismissed the possibility altogether). Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, has said Russia isn’t planning for an apocalyptic scenario.

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In an interview on the Colombian radio station W Radio, Zakharova said, “We start from the premise that this apocalyptic script is not going to be carried out under any pretext under any conditions” and then pushed back against the idea that Russia would ever push the nuclear button. The U.S. has also repeatedly signaled it won’t escalate its nuclear alert levels, send troops to fight Russians, or establish a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine—all of which would be read as precursors to nuclear war.

In another bit of good news, the Pentagon announced it would delay a scheduled test launch of a Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile. It’s all “to demonstrate we are a responsible nuclear power,” Department of Defense press secretary John Kirby said in announcing the delay.

Despite that, things feel different this time. “I think there are two big reasons this feels different. The first change is geopolitical: the implications and shifts are different. The way in which the EU and Western alliances are responding is different and will likely have lasting impacts,” Kristyn Karl, an assistant professor at Stevens Institute in Technology, told me over the phone. “The second change is the media environment. Social media and media coverage has made this conflict easier to watch in real time.”

That probably won’t alleviate the anxiety you’re feeling right now. I know, because stories I wrote years ago about how to survive a nuclear attack and giving away the bomb are seeing spikes in traffic. I also know because it’s an anxiety I, myself, constantly live with. The only way I’ve found to assuage my fear is to learn as much as possible about the weapons I’m afraid may one day kill us all. It’s helped, somewhat. But the fear never entirely goes away.

It’s a fear Alex Wellerstein, an associate professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and the man behind NUKEMAP, also knows well. He told me he’s seen a tenfold increase in traffic to the site since Putin made his veiled nuclear threat a few days ago. “I get lots of people saying they can’t access it,” he told me. “There seems to be 600 people using it at any given moment, 24 hours a day. This is a lot more traffic than I usually get.”

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It isn’t the first time the site has seen a flood of traffic. Every North Korean nuclear test brings in some people. So did Trump’s fire and fury threat to North Korea in 2017. “What’s interesting about this one is that it’s been very high and very sustained,” Wellerstein said. 

Wellerstein also said he’s had more friends reaching out to pick his brain about the possibility of nuclear war. “Just because you’ve woken up to something doesn’t mean it wasn’t always there,” he said. “I find this is the case often when people start to get really anxious about the Russians or the Chinese having the capabilities to nuke us. And the answer is, yeah, they've had that for decades. It's not great, I agree, but it's also not new.”

He said he wanted people to take this opportunity to learn about the weapons and internalize the fear a little more—that is, be more anxious all of the time, not just when the crisis rears its head.

Wellerstein had some simple advice for anyone looking to get ready for nuclear war. “The one thing you should know about nuclear detonations is that if you’ve survived the initial blast, you’re going to want to take shelter in someplace that’s going to put a lot of mass between you and the outdoors,” he said. “You’d want to bank on spending about a week in such a place before leaving the area if it's contaminated. I don’t know if that’s comforting or not to people, but it’s about as specific as I feel confident getting. I think anyone giving more-specific advice is engaged in a complicated fantasy.”

Karl, for her part, worked on a project that looked at how to reinvent Civil Defense for the modern age and teach a new generation about the risks of nuclear war. She agreed that we’ve been in places like this before, but she understood why there was so much attention on nuclear war this time around. 

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For those just waking up to the fear of nuclear war, she offered this advice. “I try to remind myself that anxiety about situations that are mostly out of my control is not helpful. Instead, I channel it into doing helpful things such as contributing to causes I support, talking to students, friends, and family about what to do,” she said. “Of course, I sometimes doom-scroll and check the news far more often than I should.”

Both Wellerstein and Karl noted that there’s a difference between fear and panic. “My last thought on nuclear risk communication is that it is not helpful just to scare people,” Karl said. “We need a reason to believe that our actions matter or will make a difference in our outcome. Some might call it hope. Why prepare for an attack or think about what to do if everyone will die or if you have no role to play? In the end, apathy and fatalism about nuclear weapons are not helpful because they lead to inaction. If the worst happened, some people would survive. So for most of us, it is helpful to consider (even briefly) what you should do.”

I’ve always dealt with nuclear anxiety by learning as much as I can and by diving deep into the movies, books, and video games that put nuclear war front and center. Nuclear expert and college professor Jeffrey Lewis is a great person to follow for the latest news. Journalist Kelsey Atherton does an amazing job of putting grim news in context. Nuclear anthropologist Martin Pfeiffer breaks down the history of nuclear fears and relates them to what’s happening today.

When all else fails, I play a Fallout video game and take small comfort in a world where the worst-case scenario has been turned into a kind of theme park. It works for me. But everyone has to find their own level.

Just don’t panic. And don’t forget what you’re feeling right now. Learn about nuclear weapons. Learn about the activism around them. There are people actively fighting right now to dismantle them all. They’re always looking for new people to join the fight so, one day, we can lick the bomb and live in a world free of the threat of cleaning nuclear fire.

Tagged:

Ukraine, World News, nuke, nuclear, Ukraine conflict, worldnews, world conflict

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