13 March 2023

The war witness trauma: how to distract yourself from the news about the war and save your mental health

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  • How our consciousness reacts to the war.
  • How to recognize a psychologically traumatized person.
  • How to protect yourself from the witness trauma.
  • How to speak to the war witnesses.
The media content covering the terrifying events of the war through photographs, videos and texts traumatizes the consumers of this content. No matter where the person is situated, be it in the midst of military actions, abroad or living in «calmer» regions of Ukraine, psychological traumatisation takes place.
It happens when a person cannot overcome the fear of a dangerous situation they have seen, identify themselves with the casualties and remains in the state of stress for a long time. This condition is defined by the psychologists as the witness trauma. How can it be avoided? Is it possible to cope with it alone? Are there any mechanisms of helping other people with the war trauma? We shall discuss all these issues in detail.

How our consciousness reacts to the war

Different people have different stress-resistance levels. Some can easily distract themselves from the stunning news and switch to their daily routines. Others put themselves in the place of the victim and their rhythms of life get disrupted to the extent when it is extremely difficult to recover it. Sometimes one has to see a specialist who can help escape from a continuous anxious state.

The constant repetition of the war terrors in one’s mind, recalling the details of physical and psychological tortures ruins the psyche. Anxiety disorders can manifest through suicidal thoughts, sleeplessness, depression, nightmares, panic attacks.

To shut oneself off the events, to turn blind to the affliction, to dismembered bodies and ruined houses – is no way out. To be compassionate and help in the times of grief is the duty of every citizen. These features identify us as humans and as a nation.

It is difficult to avoid the ruining influence of stress even for the people with strong nerves who have seen a lot in their lives. It is also impossible to leave the problem without solution, the trauma of a war witness will not disappear when the military actions are over and when the content in the news feed changes.

How to recognize a psychologically traumatized person

The war has left no indifferent people among Ukrainians, everybody are its witnesses. Some witness it indirectly, while others are the immediate witnesses of military actions. When the whole nation or at least its majority are afflicted by the shock of the war, the collective witness trauma appears. Psychologists claim that 70% of this number are able to cope with the pernicious influence of the war, but the rest will need qualified help.

First of all it is necessary to check yourself for the presence of post-traumatic reaction. The characteristics of trauma are:
  • The feeling of guilt for being in safety;
  • Manifestations of hatred and anger such as destroying things, breaking the dishes;
  • Sudden feeling of emptiness and non-characteristic calm;
  • Nightmares or experiencing the events seen on the news in one’s dreams;
  • Being in the state of anxiety;
  • The appearance of phobias;
  • Eating disorders;
  • Shame that my life is going on and someone else’s has been abruptly ended or ruined;
  • The fear that your own family or close friends are in the same danger;
  • Feeling numb for several days, lack of desire to talk about what has been seen or heard;
  • Helplessness, feeling, that nothing can help.
The list of these feelings is common for those experiencing military actions and does not point at once at the presence of trauma.
But if traumatic actions are gradually repressed from memory and the consequences of shock manifest through frequent tears, long-lasting sadness, anxiety without reason or headaches, then trauma is definitely present and one should seek psychological help.

How to protect yourself from the witness trauma

Why are military actions are so traumatic for the majority of people? Because they disrupt psychological safety of a person. A huge number of feelings come up but there is no opportunity for the actions directed at getting rid of psychological pressure, or it is minimal. In this case you can use the following advice:
  1. Limited consuming of information. It is harmful to watch hourly news marathons. The brain has to rest from negative information. The morning and evening watching of the news are sufficient for being informed about the situation in the country.
  2. Self-praise. If a person is worried about the destinies of the others and is compassionate, then they are really human, alive, not numb and one should praise oneself for that.
  3. Acceptance of the reality. It is wrong to fence yourself and consider that tomorrow it all will be over, or that these things are not happening to me. It is necessary to realize that «there is no my guilt in what is going on, I cannot take the responsibility for what is happening».
  4. Not to be silent. A war witness has to speak out, share their emotions with those who are near. If it is difficult to share your feelings with the close people, one can turn to special services offering psychological help in the time of war. It is also important not to depreciate the emotional experience of the others, instead people should offer each other mutual help.
  5. Redirecting emotions. It is impossible to control emotional outbursts, but a human being has the power of redirecting them. The best variant – physical and breathing exercises.
  6. Time for rest. Burn-outs and long-lasting emotional worries disturb all the body systems. That is why it is important to take care of one’s body. If possible it is essential to organize the sleeping routine, eat a balanced diet regularly, walk or do other work in the fresh air every day in any weather.
  7. Helping other. The anxious feelings can become ruinous if they have no way out. Affordable help to the other can lower the feeling of helplessness, but one should make distance from the thoughts and the condition of those one is helping in order to burn out ultimately.

Another piece of advice is not to get drowned in one’s own emotions, but rather to care for the close people. A simple phone-call to the relatives, neighbours or familiar elder people can add confidence in the present day and calm down. A drop of kindness has the power to stabilize the psychological balance of a person.

How to speak to the war witnesses

It is in no way advisable to ask insistent questions about the terrors a person has experienced or seen. The only right way is to support and to adequately demonstrate the admiration of the person’s courage, for example: 
  • I don’t know how you are coping with it;
  • I can see how your heart is responding to everything ;
  • I can’t imagine your pain.
It is necessary to become the person who knows how to return to life for the war witness. You should speak with confidence, in a calm tone. Then one should ask questions about what happened before the traumatic event. You can share your own experience of coping with similar states. You can ask if the person needs help and what kind of help. If the witness is in a state of stupor, you can raise your voice, speak distinctly in order to be heard.

It is impossible to distance oneself from the war, but one should take care of one’s mental health already now. Be it on one’s own or with the help of the others, but one should get rid of the traumas, because they steal our normal future.
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