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Alert Fatigue & The Russia/Ukraine War

With the recent rise in global tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, everyday people have been inundated with news, pictures, videos, and concerns of escalation to the use of chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons. This has been going on for a month as of the writing of this article, and there are indications that the situation will continue to deteriorate further. On February 27, the DEFCON Warning System elevated its alert level to DEFCON 3 – Yellow, meaning that while a nuclear incident is not imminent, the situation is fluid and can change with little to no warning. DEFCON staff currently agree there is no indication that level will be reduced to DEFCON 4 – Blue anytime soon.

This has raised the concern of “Alert Fatigue” among the civilian population. We want to address this phenomenon, define it, make people aware of it so they can recognize it, and offer some tips for dealing with it, because it can lead to impaired decision-making abilities in people experiencing it.

So, let’s start with the obvious question: What, exactly, is “Alert Fatigue?” Essentially, it is a dulled state of mind that results from experiencing an extended period of time at a heightened level of readiness due to a potential threat. Most people experience a similar heightened level of awareness in much shorter time frames due to adrenaline, such as during a tornado or being the victim of a robbery. However, those occurrences do not last long enough to induce Alert Fatigue.

In contrast, every person on the planet has just spent the past two years dealing with a global pandemic, and the Alert Fatigue from that is obvious to those who know what to watch for. A common refrain heard these days is, “I’m done with Covid,” which signals that the person has become completely overwhelmed by the long, drawn-out state of emergency and is no longer interested in any further information regarding the pandemic, even if that information might be vital to their health and well-being.

The war in Ukraine is no different, other than the threat vector has changed. Now, instead of a global pandemic, the threat is nuclear war, and that possibility is even more horrifying than any pandemic could be. When confronted with even the remote possibility of experiencing a nuclear conflict, a lot of people shut down mentally and emotionally because the imagined level of death and destruction is so completely beyond their comprehension. They tend to ignore information that could help them prepare for such a disaster and possibly survive it. This will get worse the longer the crisis lasts. As a result, after several weeks at DEFCON 3, people might not react appropriately to DEFCON 2 if it gets to that point. This is “Alert Fatigue.”

Alert Fatigue can be identified by the following symptoms:
• Increased feelings of anxiety, depression, or hopelessness
• Feeling overwhelmed or “numb”
• Emotional and/or physical exhaustion
• A change in sleep patterns
• Emotional overreaction to common, everyday incidents
• Anger and hostility, or a sudden lack of any emotion whatsoever
• Lack of interest in normally enjoyable activities
• Reluctance to watch news reports regarding the crisis
• Refusal to prepare for the possible “worst-case scenario”
• Complete denial that the crisis even exists or the belief that “it can’t happen to me”
• Inability to focus on work or household chores
• Thoughts of suicide
• If the crisis worsens, Alert Fatigue can lead to panicking or making poor decisions based on lack of

So, now that we have defined Alert Fatigue and how to recognize it in yourself or others, how do we deal with it? It should be made clear that no one is suggesting people should not be experiencing this or that they are weak if they are. What is being suggested is that people understand what they are feeling is completely normal, and there are methods of dealing with it constructively to help control Alert Fatigue so it does not control them:
• First, recognize the symptoms and admit that you or someone close to you is experiencing Alert Fatigue
• Second, remind yourself or them that this is completely normal, but it can’t just be ignored

Just taking those first two steps will go a long way towards controlling the symptoms of Alert Fatigue. After that:
• To overcome feelings of being overwhelmed, break the crisis down into separate components so you can focus on the smaller pieces of the puzzle rather than the entire picture.
• To reduce fear and anxiety, take some time to study the threat so you understand it better. People are naturally afraid of what they don’t understand, so increasing your understanding will decrease your fear and anxiety.
• For depression, go out of your way to do things you enjoy, especially if you can do so with friends and family.
• Do everything in your power to maintain a normal routine and lifestyle to give yourself a better sense of control over your life.
• Proper sleep is more important than ever during a crisis. Make sure part of that normal routine involves a regular bedtime.
• Minimize your exposure to crisis-related information without eliminating your ability to remain informed. These days, people have the ability to obtain information 24/7 through both news media and social media. Resist that temptation and set restrictions on how often you check for updates and where, then stick to that schedule. If you are reading or listening to news reports for 15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes at lunch, and maybe 30 minutes in the evening, you will remain well-informed without becoming completely overwhelmed with information.
• Make sure your sources of information are reliable. There are a lot of people out there who enjoy causing other people to panic by posting alarmist or sensationalist information. Avoid those sources and stick to those that convey information without emotion. Remember, if the emotion is more important than the information to the person conveying it, then it is most likely not a trustworthy source.
• Allow yourself to think, “Okay, what if…?” Acknowledge the possibilities and then immediately move on to thinking of ways you might minimize the impact of each possibility on you and your family. This will also serve to give you a better sense of control over the situation.
• DON’T GO THROUGH THE CRISIS ALONE! Talk to your spouse, your best friend, your family, your coworkers, or anyone you trust, and be honest with them about what you’re feeling. You will probably discover they are also experiencing similar feelings, and that will give both you and them some emotional support.

It is important to remember that we have prepared for crisis situations all of our lives. Fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes… these are all a part of everyday risks for most people, and most people take some very basic precautions to be prepared for them. For instance, fire drills have been a part of every school
child’s life for decades. Try to look at this current crisis in the same light, and then take the following steps:
1. Clearly define the potential threats the crisis presents – in this case, the possibility of a nuclear event at some level
2. Then identify ways those threats might impact you and your family
3. Discuss the threats and impacts with your family so everyone can ask questions and participate
4. Take steps to eliminate or minimize those impacts
5. Remain informed on the developing crisis so you can modify your preparations as it evolves
6. Live your life as normally as possible, knowing that you are as prepared as you can possibly be

The DEFCON Warning System is a private intelligence organization that has focused on global nuclear threats since 1984. Our mission statement is to ensure the general public is informed on possible nuclear threats and educated on how to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear event. Our staff is comprised of people from different countries and with many different backgrounds in military operations, nuclear weapons, nuclear war strategy, Cold War history, and data analysis. Our DEFCON level alerts are not based on any level of military readiness; they are designed for the civilian population. We sincerely hope that we never have to inform the public that a nuclear attack is imminent or in progress. However, if that day ever arrives, it is our hope that our efforts to educate and prepare the public for that moment will not have been in vain, and people will know how to react appropriately to increase their chances of survival.

Questions regarding this article or the current war in Ukraine may be posted on our website’s community forum at Our staff will be happy to answer any questions or address any concerns you may have.

About the author

Eric Wasson - The DEFCON Warning System