All that you are feeling now: War Trauma, Triggers, Displacement, Anger, Helplessness and Coping

With world events spiraling out of control in the last years, months and weeks, it is important to open the discussion of how this is affecting us. There is a heartache for those suffering from the uncertainty, violence and powerlessness as events evolve each minute and the trauma from the devastation of it all is undeniable. A traumatic event is any situation that is shocking, frightening or dangerous that affects you emotionally, psychologically and physically. If you are feeling an immense level of sadness, unease, fear, vulnerability, frustration, anger or more, you are not alone! International crisis affecting you or triggering other issues close to home is valid and you have the right to feel how you feel.

From being indirect viewers of tragic news to experiencing war-conflict and violence firsthand, the psycho-social effects go far beyond what meets the eye. During war, people are exposed to a myriad of traumatic events, from losing their homes, helplessness in trying to survive, being displaced, witnessing destroyed infrastructures, losing loved ones, being exposed to violence such as torture, murder, and other life-threatening situations. Individuals face abnormally high levels of mental distress, depression, anxiety,  fear, dissociation, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and so much more when exposed to war trauma.

Vicarious Terror

The current events in Ukraine being broadcasted in real time all over the media as the world watches, also brings up rise vicarious terror which includes compassion fatigue. Allow me to quickly explain this, vicarious terror is secondhand trauma transmitted through the media rather than direct contact. It is dependent on repetitive bombardment of images, sounds, videos that cause your body’s stress response to be hyperactivated continuously leading to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, including dissociation. When I say dissociation, I mean, this is so overwhelming for us that we need to very literally physically numb ourselves, become disconnected to cope. When our stress response is hyperactivated, this means your heart rate is increased, breathing is fast short and shallow. Your muscles are tightened, your thinking brain is shutting down and your primitive emotional brain is functioning, large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol is being released and affecting you under the radar. Even when you don’t realize this is how your mind and body is responding, keep in mind that our brain registers images, words, sounds from the media subconsciously. As viewers, this quite difficult and our ability to empathize with those from a far continuously can b all-consuming and exhausting emotionally. If you are feeling this, you aren’t alone, you are human.

Triggers of Past Experiences of Displacement/Refuge

If you have experienced a similar life situation or a traumatic one in the past, it is likely current events are triggering you to relive your own traumatic events. Especially the aspect of individuals being displaced and seeking refuge can be triggering if you yourself have been a refugee or migrant. I would like to provide more detail on this experience as it is not discussed enough since escape from one’s country brings forth a whole new set if struggles and difficulties. In recent years the influx of refugees globally has become an epidemic. A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their nation to escape war, abuse, or natural disasters. There was approximately 21.3 million refugees in 2015 only, yet this figure continues to grow on a daily basis. Refugees are a unique population that face extreme traumatic stressors throughout their pre-migration, migration and post migration process. Some refugees may be more at risk of experiencing distress. Kunz’s Kinetic model differentiates between two classes of refugees: anticipatory and acute.

Anticipatory refugees sense a threat ahead of schedule, before the emergency makes take off impossible. Alternatively, acute refugees have not arranged or prepared for the. They usually flee when the situation has escalated making it too dangerous to live. Acute refugees have usually been the ones that have endured horrific stressors such as bombings, deaths, rape and torture. They generally flee the nation rather suddenly within hours or 1 to 2 days and rarely decide on which host country they will seek refuge in, their aim is to survive. Since they flee on such short notice, the journey to the country of refuge may cause additional distress due to unsanitary conditions, violence, sexual assaults and loss of loved ones.

After migration, they may experience grief over numerous losses, aloneness, loss of self-esteem, exhaustion from mental burdens and thoughts of being unable to function successfully in a new culture. They may constantly be relocated from camps, unsure about their new home and worry excessively over separated family members. Camps are overcrowded forcing them to share facilities, decreasing privacy and are restricted from the outside world resulting in  loss of status or drive, fundamentally becoming helpless or even aggressive. They lose social networks, resources, economic status, support, values and a sense of community.  They face tremendous distress as they are treated as low class residents despite having credible degrees, language skills and various qualifications. Furthermore, they face unemployment or underemployment, discrimination in job market and decreased support by the host country. Racism and stereotyping by the host culture endangers survival for them, leading to alcohol and drug use, increase in rape rates as well as domestic violence. They may be resistant to assimilate into the host culture due to anxiety of the unknown and fear of rejection.  Women regularly experience stressors related to sexism based on poverty levels. Another significant stressor is lack of knowledge of the host language which also leads to role shifts, family conflicts, lack of self-esteem and several mental health consequences as a result.

I mention this to especially emphasize how war trauma is experienced long after escaping the threatening environment and for us to truly understand the impossible level of difficulties that is faced on an individual level when war takes place. Not to mention, children face a host of additional struggles and effects as well. It is important to support individuals throughout this experience (past or present) and be especially compassionate to the struggles faced.

Anger at Lack of Attention Given to Other World Struggles

Finally, I want to also mention how anger is a big emotion individuals from other nations may experience currently when observing the world pay close attention to one countries struggle and ignore the ongoing devastation occurring in several other regions as well. For instance, the ongoing conflicts, tragedies and adversities faced in Palestine, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Africa and many more with a lack of media coverage and attention may cause you immense frustration. Your feelings are valid, and your internal divide when standing in solidarity with other nations while also feeling a sense of disappointment to your communities lives, suffering and war crimes being pushed in the background. It is completely valid to speak about this and concepts of eurocentrism as well, your voice brings continuous awareness to horrific pain being experienced everywhere that requires attention.

Coping Emotionally

With the covid-19 pandemic serving as a mass international trauma the last two years, our internal stress levels are already at a high and emotional stores at a low. With personal struggles and stressors adding to it, it is valid that you may feel drained completely as events unfold day by day. It is important to engage in de-stressing and emotional regulation techniques now more than ever, using the same toolkit you did during the last two years of the pandemic may help you cope with vicariously witnessing war now as well.  We are continuously living in times of uncertainty and there is nothing scarier than that. In these times, focusing on small routines that provide us with a sense of control can be soothing. Additionally, creating a level of distance from continuously being hooked to the media is important in giving your body a small rest period from being hyperaroused and alert all day. This can make intaking large amounts of information more manageable when they are chunks, rather than continuous. If you are feeling a sense of helplessness and powerlessness with tragedies beyond our control and understanding, you are not alone. Our stress response can be motivated to take action right now to do something, whether it is sharing the news to raise awareness, donating to funds or donating supplies, volunteering, write about it, or other means. This can help us make a difference, help in ways we can and extend the best of our human abilities, compassion and care. Although your social media feed being continuously bombarded with others sharing news may be overwhelming, it serves us in some way too. I want to also point out that it is ok if aren’t publicly commenting on global disasters on social media, it does not mean you do not care or understand. Social media can be a source of pressure to be or act in a certain way, and it is valid to take a step back from that, this is your form of self-care. Throughout all of this, our empathic ability is breathtaking but also fatiguing, although it is so important to connect with others and share their experiences. It is equally important to take a daily break to recharge and be empathic to yourself too. Tapping into other outlets or activities such as going for a walk, doing something enjoyable for a little while, journaling or being creative can help you regulate your emotions so that you are better able to cope with stressors and care for others fully. We are all doing the best we can to cope with the adversities thrown onto us, and at times, we may need to lean onto other support systems to help us learn how to cope. This can be friends, family, colleagues or seeking our professional help too. We are here for anyone experiencing difficulties or stress during this period, you are never alone. So, please don’t hesitate to reach out for support from our team, we see you and hold a safe space for all of you.

 

With so much love,

Nathasha Sharma

 

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