War is a traumatic experience. Depending on what people have personally gone through, they may require support and recovery. The recovery process differs for those Ukrainians who have been in relative safety since the beginning of the war and those who remained in the active combat zone.
Anastasiia Nizhnik, a psychotherapist and co-founder of the BrainCult Mental Health Center and the Resilience Hub platform, and Anna Shyichuk, a psychologist and coordinator of the Crisis Psychological Service CF “Right to Protection,” shared advice for those who have fled from the shelled areas to safer places and are trying to cope with fear for their lives, sleep disorders, etc.
Find a source of support
This is the very first thing that is important to do after a traumatic experience. Ask for help and accept it from others.
The first step toward achieving a sense of security is to feel supported, to know that you are not alone in your suffering.
Focus on meeting your basic needs: food, water, hygiene, and sleep.
Sleep provides physical and mental recovery, and during the deep sleep stage, the brain processes the experienced stress.
However, falling asleep can be difficult due to exhaustion or a constant stream of thoughts or images.
How to help yourself fall asleep?
Before going to bed: ventilate the room, breathe deeply and slowly, and cover yourself with a warm, heavy blanket.
Try to pay attention to every thought or image, and capture them as, for example, “that’s a thought of fleeing,” “here is the thought of shelter,” etc. The next step is to imagine a stop sign and say to yourself, “Stop this thought.” Or imagine that obsessive thoughts or images are film stills, and you can pause them just like a movie.
If you have nightmares:
— get up and walk a bit, drink water, go to the toilet;
— turn on the light and look around to realize that the nightmare is over;
— hug a pillow, blanket, or the person sleeping next to you so that your body can feel the surroundings;
— imagine your safe haven (fictional or real, either can be effective);
— remind yourself of your best memories in full detail.
Eat and drink
If you have lost your appetite, try eating small portions of high-calorie foods.
If you have a strong appetite, then have snacks at hand and drink plenty of water.
Analyze your psychological condition
Psychotrauma is an event that leaves a traumatic memory. However, just as physical wounds can heal on their own, psychological trauma does not always result in post-traumatic stress disorder (not all Ukrainians will suffer from it, even those who spent a lot of time in combat zones).
If you feel that you cannot cope alone or you require support, contact psychologists or crisis consultants.
Remember what gives you a sense of fulfillment
Consider things that used to bring you pleasure before and give them a try, whether they’re activities, food, sounds, aromas, or touches.
Try to fill your day with these activities because it’s important to engage all of your senses in order to give your brain a sign that says, “Stop the alarm, I’m safe now.”
It’s not selfishness; it’s a way to get back on your feet and speed up your recovery.
Gradually resume important activities
Setting yourself simple tasks (going to the store, drinking tea, taking out trash, etc.) and restoring the senses reminds you that this is your life and that you are the one who controls it. And that you are not helpless; you can act.
Consider the following:
What is the most valuable to you?
What do you dream of?
What steps can you take right now to bring this dream closer?
How to deal with excessive emotions? Physical exercise
For some time after a severe traumatic event, you may be haunted by unwanted images and emotions. If the emotions overwhelm you, try practicing the following tapping techniques: big butterfly, small butterfly, or just tapping your knees.
Cross your arms and place them on your shoulders. As a butterfly flies and raises its wings, so do you, alternately tapping your right and left palm.
Put your hands in front of you, palms up. Cross your fingers so that your thumbs are hugging each other, and then place them on your chest so that your middle finger is just below the collarbone. Start lightly patting your chest.
When we experience stressful or difficult events, we are like a balloon filled with experiences that are difficult to process. If you keep inflating the balloon without letting air out just a bit, the balloon will burst. Similarly, if we do not “deflate” anxiety, stress, or tension, then we will experience an emotional collapse. Tapping can help calm your emotions and stabilize your state of mind.
Share your experiences
Talk about your experiences with others and listen to their stories. Describe the events that happened to you, how you fled, and how you protected yourself.
What to do if you are haunted by obsessive memories (flashbacks)?
A person can see images and hear sounds that don’t exist.
Call them out loud when they arise, or tell a loved one about them: “It just seemed that I was in that car again…”, “I was near the store and I thought that it was burning like our bread store,” or “When I close my eyes, I see it again…”.
Don’t be afraid or ashamed of your memories, because it’s absolutely essential that they’re heard. It will help you get better.
Listen to these stories. Don’t comment, just listen: “I’m glad you told me this. I’m with you.”
Express your feelings
Take care of your family; stick together with those you trust and feel safe with.
Hug your kids a lot. Hug adults too: ask for permission, and then give them a hug.
Tell them that you love them. Tell them that you appreciate that you have them in your life and thank your relatives. Apologize if you had a breakdown.
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