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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

How Images of War in Ukraine Can Trigger PTSD

Five steps to help ease anxiety, especially for veterans and trauma survivors.

Key points

  • It is normal to experience more anxiety and distress when war breaks out, even if it is happening thousands of miles away.
  • The recent acts of violence and inhumanity have left people with a trauma history feeling unsafe, angry, and helpless.
  • To help ease war anxiety and PTSD symptoms, steps include managing time on social media, sticking to a routine, and self-care.
 Unsplash/Max Kukurudziak
Beautiful Ukraine
Source: Unsplash/Max Kukurudziak

Images of war, tyranny, and violence have predominated the news. Within minutes of the bombs falling in Ukraine, we saw pictures of bombed buildings, blood-covered survivors, and babies being tended to in train stations.

The brave Ukrainian men and women show the world how they are trying to protect their country. We are witnessing a country that is fighting to protect its independence. Ukrainian men and women are transforming themselves into soldiers, preparing homemade bombs, and arming themselves with weapons. They are showing the world what it means to stay in the fight and find ways to maintain control in a situation that is so out of control.

What People Are Saying

Throughout the week, clients and colleagues have been reporting increased anxiety and stress. It is normal to experience more anxiety and distress when war breaks out, even if it is happening thousands of miles away.

I was in session with one client, a Desert Storm veteran. He told me that “my PTSD is through the roof,” going on to explain that he cannot sleep or be around people. He also said that watching this war unfold made him want to re-enlist. I have talked to many clients this week with a trauma history who have reported feeling more anxious, hypervigilant, angry, and despondent.

One of the questions I have heard repeatedly this week is, “How can Putin be so evil?”

The recent acts of violence and inhumanity have left people with a trauma history feeling unsafe, angry, and helpless. Veterans of previous wars are reminded about the senseless loss of life and impending doom and gloom. Mothers who have lost their children in war are re-experiencing grief. People who have suffered abuse by partners, authority figures, or loved ones question their trust in humanity. People without a trauma history report feelings of fear, insecurity, uncertainty, and rage.

Throughout the week, clients have asked questions like, “How can we go on living our lives when innocent people are risking their lives to be safe?” Parents tell me their children are having nightmares and are much more anxious after seeing pictures and posts of children in Ukraine looking terrified and unsafe.

I have noticed an uptick in my PTSD during these last seven days. I have woken up from nightmares and experienced bouts of anxiety that in moments remind me of what I felt as an abused child.

How are we supposed to cope with all of our emotions while trying to accept that we cannot control a war happening across the world? When times are tumultuous, we must utilize coping strategies to stay grounded and present.

 Unsplash/Marjun Blan
Supporting Ukraine
Source: Unsplash/Marjun Blan

Steps for when we feel back in the PTSD trenches.

Manage our time on social media and news outlets with graphic details and heartbreaking stories happening overseas. If you feel the need to be kept up to date, try and spend no more than twenty minutes a day watching the news.

Be mindful of the time of day you expose yourself to this information. Consider picking a time each day to check in with a reliable news source. Focus on stories that are about hope and fight! For example, watching stories about how the Ukrainians are coming together to keep their country safe. Those images are sad but also uplifting and empowering.

Stick to your current routine. When life feels out of control, we need to do things that make us feel in control. Missing work or social outings to keep up with the news can lead to more anxiety and PTSD. Remind yourselves to continue doing activities that leave you feeling lighter. For example, keep exercising, walking, hiking, and spending time with friends.

Take very good care of yourself. Trauma survivors struggle with self-care for a variety of reasons. Many people report feeling guilty about giving themselves food, love, and connection when they see others suffering. Restricting ourselves from what we need and want will not change the course of events in Ukraine.

Suffering with others does not change the craziness happening in Ukraine. The best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to continue nourishing our bodies and souls. The more we tend to our own needs, the more support and nurturing we can give to others.

Let yourself express your feelings. The events of the last week have left many of us feeling heartbroken. Trying to run from these emotions will not make them go away. If you feel like you want to cry, then cry. The more we fight the feelings, the more they take over as we go through our day week.

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Get together with friends and form healing circles. Form groups for prayer or vigils. Write letters to people you know in Ukraine or others who have family in the war-torn country. Check-in with your children and make space for them to ask questions or share their thoughts about the war. Create a safe space in your home where you can plant your feet and reassure yourself you are okay. Use the coping strategies that help manage your PTSD. Meditate. Hug your animals. Go to yoga. Sit on a beach. Hike a mountain. Sing. Draw. Write. Do what works for you. When you feel panic and urgency, assess the situation you are in at that moment. Ask yourself, "Are these feelings about now, or are they being triggered by the atrocities taking place in Ukraine?"

Think about how you can help. Contact a local Ukrainian organization to see if they are in need of supplies. Look for charities that are accepting donations. Make cards or write letters and send them to hospitals in Ukraine. Sending thoughts of kindness and prayers instills hope for yourselves and others.

Be open to asking for help, especially if symptoms of PTSD are showing up in your daily lives. If you feel more anxious, depressed, guarded, hypervigilant, dissociated, or agoraphobic, seek mental health support.