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Don't Let Fears over the North Korean Crisis Affect Your Health

August 10, 2017

Are you worried about a possible attack by North Korea? Not sleeping well at night?

You’re not alone.

A recent CBS News poll found 72 percent of Americans are uneasy about a possible conflict with North Korea over their nuclear ambitions.

Yet, among all the heated rhetoric of “fire and fury” from the United States and a retaliatory threat by the North Koreans to attack waters near the U.S. territory of Guam, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has attempted to calm any fears by telling Americans they “should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.”

Easier said than done

That may be easier said than done, says psychiatrist Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center.

Dr. Sarvet noted a recent conversation with a colleague who was nine years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fifty-five years later, this person’s memories of lying awake worrying about nuclear war resurfaced in vivid detail after watching the evening news.

“Anxiety is an evolutionary alarm system which functions to induce a state of readiness for responding effectively to a dangerous or threatening situation. Needless to say, this state of readiness is not conducive to sleep…and when threats are persistent and beyond one’s individual control, the anxiety can be harmful and counterproductive,” he said.

Tips to de-stress

Dr. Sarvet offers the following tips to help those who may be stressed by worry over the North Korea situation:

  • Follow a “media diet” – people have a right and responsibility to be well informed and to participate in public discourse, however, compulsive checking of news and social media is usually not productive and unnecessary. Consider taking control of your media consumption by turning off intrusive news alerts and developing a habit of checking your preferred news sources once or twice per day for a limited amount of time, ideally not immediately before bed.
  • Talk to friends and people you trust about your fears. Choose people to talk with whom you consider to be thoughtful and reasonable. Avoiding talking about negative feelings usually doesn’t relieve them because they often persist and become magnified in the background of your thoughts.
  • Consider engaging in constructive collective activity and civic engagement. Individuals often consider themselves to be helpless to influence the course of events in society, however when people come together, their voices can exert a powerful influence.


As for losing sleep over the prospect of war, stress can cause insomnia, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.

“We know that stress can disrupt your sleep patterns. Even the slightest of deprivation can result in poor health both physically and mentally,” said Dr. Karin Johnson, director, Sleep Lab, Baystate Medical Center.

Tips to fall asleep

To help you get to sleep at night when your head hits the pillow along with your worries from the day, Dr. Johnson suggests the following tips:

  • Don’t stay in bed for more than 10-20 minutes if you can’t sleep, especially if your mind is racing.
  • Turn off TV, smart phone and other electronics for the last 1-2 hours before bed and develop a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Practice mindfulness or other relaxation techniques during the day.
  • Keep your sleep period at regular times, seven days per week.
  • Keeps lights low before bed.

    To make an appointment with a behavioral health specialist at Baystate Medical Center, call 413-794-5555, or to make an appointment with a sleep specialist, call 413-794-5600.