What is your first association when you hear “post war mental health issues”? Most likely it will be the acronym “PTSD”.
There are currently millions of war refugees from Ukraine that are likely to develop PTSD due to high-level and high-number of traumatic experiences the war in their country has caused. Experts are already very alarmed by this prognosis.
However, war refugees and everyone else experiencing high-levels of stress due to the current events should not be focusing on the forecoming consequences, but rather on what you can do in the present to build your mental toughness in adversity and come out of this difficult situation stronger.
The purpose of this article is to explain in understandable language what PTSD is and to present 3 everyday proven strategies war refugees can use to ease their stress levels in their everyday lives.
What is PTSD and why do I even want to know?
PTSD stands for “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. It is basically a shield that our mind builds after we experience or witness a highly unpleasant event. The purpose of this shield is to protect us from further damage or getting ourselves in a situation where this event might occur again.
The brain uses this shield in many different ways in order to achieve this goal. Here are some examples:
Experiencing fear even when no danger is present
A simple sound that’s loud which you wouldn’t even notice before, becomes a trigger for anxiety. You hear a police siren in the city and it immediately reminds you of the war sirens you heard in your home country during war. Suddenly you feel afraid, even though in reality there is no actual danger.
The shield doesn’t want you to forget the danger, so that you are prepared for any other danger that might occur.
Explanation: Despite the good intentions of the shield, you should train your brain with rational thinking and self-talk to bring yourself back to reality. It can be very tiring, if this function of the shield remains active when there is no actual danger.
Intrusive irrational thoughts
You get random negative thoughts during the day that make you feel depressed, angry or tired to go about you everyday life. You might get the feeling of helplessness and the wish to be left alone.
The shield doesn’t want you to relax too much and enjoy life when there can be danger behind the next corner. You have lived in peace before and then what happened? A disaster. A war.
Explanation: This time we can also see the good intentions of the shield in terms of boosting our survival instinct. However, if we let it run 24/7, we will spend our whole life focusing on the negative – spending most of our time thinking about negative events that happened and waiting for new ones to come. In this sense it is not only extremely tiring, but also unhealthy. The goal is to remember in order to learn and use the experience (no matter how negative) to grow as a person. Having the experience on replay doesn’t allow us to do that.
Avoiding people related to the event
You realize that when you are in touch with people related to the event (e.g. family members, friends, coworkers…). It brings you back to the negative experience. Therefore, you decide to avoid them as much as possible to leave the traumatic experience behind. It is enough that a loud sound makes you jump and that you can’t even enjoy a cup of coffee without negative thoughts bursting in your head.
Explanation: The shield once again wants to save you from the traumatic experience. Therefore, even a cup for coffee that you had on your shelf back home during war will seem like a threat in your brain. Take time-off to build yourself back up, but don’t rely too long on avoiding-strategies. The people who were there during the event will be the ones who understand you most. Spending time with them might be eventually beneficial for your psycho-social post-traumatic recovery.
All of a sudden you become angry, maybe even violent. Your child hits his schoolmate while he used to be the most calm, kind and friendly child in class. What is happening?
During the traumatic event we don’t have time to get involved with our emotions. We don’t have time to be angry due to the injustice that’s happening to us and our loved ones. We have to devote all our focus on survival. After the traumatic event the shield let’s these emotions slip out every now and then. To release them from the emotional storage you had kept locked at the time of the traumatic event.
Explanation: We can direct this function of the shield through physical exercise, self-awareness and emotion regulation strategies.
You wake up during the night for no reason. You experience regular nightmares. You can’t get a good night’s rest. The shield keeps your nervous system busy during night, so that you don’t miss any sign of potential danger.
Disclaimer: This is a tough one to overcome. It happens during the night when the conscious part of our brain is disactivated, therefore we can’t really give it any instructions. Check out the principles of healthy sleeping hygiene (e.g. switching all the screens off 2 hours before bed; avoiding news and negative information before sleep, doing mind and muscle relaxation strategies, such as progressive muscle relaxation; praying…). If it doesn’t help, you will need help from an expert in this area or a psychotherapist to help you lower your shield during sleep.
Being aware of these symptoms and knowing where they come from is the first important step towards recovery from PTSD and also the first step to lowering the chances of developing a severe version of PTSD which requires professional help. The next step is to use a healthy daily routine of your own choice to rebuild yourself physically and emotionally after the traumatic experience. Below you can find some strategies that you can try out.
What strategies can I use to cope with stress in my everyday life?
Imagine you are the most important journalist in the world. You have a very responsible and sometimes difficult job of reflecting on your emotions on a daily basis. The good thing about this job is that all you need is a notebook and a pen apart from 20 minutes of time during the day.
Spend 15 minutes reflecting on your thoughts and emotions during the day. Then spend 5 minutes thinking and writing down all the things you can be grateful for in that moment or in that day. Be as specific as possible.
This will help you to train your brain back to a healthy functioning mode. Over time your shield will be updated and the PTSD symptoms will decrease. You will be able to sleep well again, focus on the positive and rebuild connections with people you avoided.
If you have children that are too young to write a journal, give them a paper and color pencils to draw on. Ask them to draw their day or how they feel or what they are grateful for that day.
Attend a boxing class or sign your child up for football practice. Or dancing lessons. Go for a run. Jump and scream. Whatever lets the steam out.
In the beginning, high-intensity exercise might be more helpful as it opens the physical vent for all the negative emotions stored up. Later on, physical exercise will help you keep the emotional balance by spreading positive chemicals in your brain. This will tame your shield so that it stays in its place.
There is no need to exaggerate. Sometimes 20 minutes of exercise is enough to significantly increase our physical and mental well-being.
Do not isolate yourself. Wherever you are right now, there are good people nearby that will help you go through whatever your experiencing.
Sometimes you will feel that no one understands what you’re going through. That’s once again the shield’s doing – preventing us from getting hurt or feeling like we don’t belong.
Make a goal of socializing once a day. It can be with people you know or with someone you have met recently.
Check out the social activities and events in your current location and go out. It will help you keep your feet on the ground – in reality and in the present, and give you a chance of building new friendships.
These everyday strategies will be helpful for what you’re going through. In case you find yourself in a place where you cannot cope with your anxiety and PTSD symptoms, it is highly recommended to contact an expert to help you out in the process.
Here are some links where you can find free online counselling for Ukrainian refugees:
We are not meant to go through this alone. Same as we learn to communicate in a new language with the help of a teacher, we can learn to lower the shield after a traumatic experience and gain mental toughness with the help of a mental health professional.
You are not alone.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous hand.” Isaiah, 41:10