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Beyond Bombs, Bullets & Bloodshed - The Psychological Cost of War

Just as we were reaching the 2 year anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdowns when we saw cases falling, rules easing and a glimmer of hope that things were returning back to normal, it felt like that tiny thread of hope was snapped when the Russian troops began the military assault on Ukraine and sparked a fear of global conflict. This fear of war and another humanitarian conflict has triggered an upheaval of emotions of anxiety, worry, pain, sadness and fear for us who have already been so worn down by two years of unprecedented instability in the midst of a health crisis.

War scares us all, irrespective of where we live and how old we are. It threatens our very existence, shakes us to our core and makes us feel vulnerable. While we talk a lot about the economic losses of war, lives lost and the destruction of cities, we rarely look at the impact war has on our minds, particularly in terms of Mental Health. In this piece, we will look at the impact that such crises can have on Mental Health and how we can look after ourselves during this time, particularly when we are bombarded with 24x7 news updates and opinions courtesy social media which has almost made us all live spectators to things as they unfold.

The past few days have been harrowing. There’s not bene a single moment where we haven’t heard about the brewing tensions and escalations between Russia and Ukraine - be it the constant alerts through the news portals, the heart wrenching videos of families being separated, the high-intensity evacuation efforts, the devastating images of the bombed towns or the updates of world leaders holding meetings to review the situation. We have quite literally seen this unfold right before us, live, through our newsfeeds and social media and one thing we forget is that while it is good to be updated, this seems to have come at the cost of our Mental Health and wellbeing as well. As explosions were heard, airstrikes with bombings were seen, helpless families were crying on the streets and many lost their lives, our social media feeds caught us without warning. Live reporting of reporters became almost as haunting and triggering as the imagery that accompanied it - and we had no escape. This is what a war looks like in a social media world - it is overwhelming. Even if we’ve been sat in our homes miles away, we have been party to these events and they have caused a lot of vicarious trauma. Research has also shown that even the mere exposure to these scenes through the ambit of the media can induce anxiety, stress and PTSD symptoms!

War is more than just a military conflict which is linked to the loss of lives and property - it can leave people with crippling health issues, especially in term of Mental Health, and this is the untold story of wars and humanitarian crises - the story of those who survive to tell the tales of war. The psychological impact of war needs to be discussed with utmost importance as well, both on those who witness it first hand and those who are secondary witnesses to it, especially in a digital age as we live in now. From experiencing deep trauma, to anxiety, brain fogs and disassociating, individuals who have survived these conflicts suffer the deep scars even post-war. Today, as the world is witnessing the worst of times from the pages of history, it is important to understand the emotional impacts of these events. Research studies have shown that war leaves long lasting imprints on almost everyone irrespective of age and gender and some of these imprints go on to appear as anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, dissociative disorders, behavioural disorders and increased cases of alcohol and substance use disorders.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), while almost all people affected by such emergencies will experience psychological distress, many might improve over time but there is a chance that 1 in 11 of them will go on to develop a moderate or severe mental disorder. Additionally, 1 in 5 people living in an area affected by conflict is estimated to develop depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Furthermore, while most people affected by emergencies will experience distress which might appear in the form of feelings of anxiety and sadness, hopelessness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, irritability or anger and/or aches and pains), the chances of this distress developing into a Mental Health condition such as depression and anxiety is expected to be more than double in the event of an emergency.

When it comes to such troubling times, especially in the era of social media making the world available to us at our fingertips and driving opinions, it is important to look after our Mental Health. There are a few tips which can help us look after ourselves and look out for others as well:

Acknowledge your emotions

At this time, it can be hard to make sense of how we are feeling - but know that whatever you are feeling is ok. It is important to honour and respect your feelings. You might be feeling lost, scared, angry, confused, anxious or pained, and every feeling is valid. You don’t need to gaslight yourself for feeling the way you are feeling or try to compare your situation with that of those who might be having it worse than you right now - this is not an Olympics of suffering.

Build your Boundaries

Boundaries are not selfish, they are needed for survival! It is crucial to set boundaries to protect your emotional health and peace through this time - it is ok to not reply to that message, it is ok to engage in that conversation, it is ok to tell people not to send you those messages if it gets too much. You may choose a time when you check the news and limit how much time you spend engaging in the discussion around this topic both online and offline.

Check before your Wreck

There is a lot of news going around at this time, just as it was during the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic. We know that social media also gives rise to a tirade of rumours and fake news which can create a lot of panic and fear. So, before you give into that urge, check your news sources. It is imperative to find a good source of information that isn't full of lies, sensationalism and misinformation.

Limit your intake of News

When it comes to our consumptions of news, limit it to small doses from reliable sources which can help you get an understanding of what is going on in the world, and then stop. Research has shown that increased media exposure (especially to graphic images) has been associated with higher levels of stress, greater PTSD symptoms, fear of future doom all leading to difficulty in overall functioning.

Don’t Doom-scroll!

We've all been there, minutes (if not seconds) after a breaking news story drops, we find ourselves on social media watching every horrific video and reading every questionable take on it. This doom-scrolling is not just time consuming but also very addictive, especially on platforms like Twitter which are updated every second. This only makes it even more overwhelming as we get caught up in this web of information about something which we cannot control which then leaves us feeling even more helpless. This is also another place where our boundaries come in - set a time to looking at the news, focus on just the headlines than all the commentary and don’t hit on every hashtag. Doom-scrolling will only suck you into this dark hole where there is always one more comment, and one more link to look at.

Put your phone down!

With live feeds available 24/7, sometimes we can’t help but keep scrolling down our newsfeeds and timelines to see what’s going on and this is what makes it hard to pull away, but at some point, we need to unplug and log out if needed! Social Media is flooding us with negative news, graphic images and stories of death, doom and destruction which are only heightening fear and worries. We have as such been in a fearful state the past 2 years and this added fear of a world event isn't doing any good to our Mental Health. While our smartphones are valuable for numerous reasons such as for seeking out knowledge and instant communication in troubling times, the way we use them can also vastly impact our mental health. It is also advisable to not look at your phone the first thing in the morning and the last thing in the night - this can help reduce our doom-scrolling habits too. It can also help to put your phone in another room at night and set screen limits if needed to control your usage of your phone.

Focus on what you can control

We humans are not designed for this kind of uncertainty and in such times it can help to focus on what we can control rather than what we cannot. Talk about your feelings and focus on taking care of yourself. Your routine may be out of the ordinary at this point, but try and develop a routine for each day as best as you can. You might find it helpful to write a journal or plan for your day or your week. That being said, be flexible, there may be days where you may face an uphill battle with your emotions, and this is ok. Remember that this is a difficult time for everyone and sharing how you are feeling and the things you are doing to cope with family and friends can help them too. Take time out every day to assess your stress and how you’re feeling (physically and mentally) by checking in with yourself. If need be, you can also turn to grounding techniques to help you feel more anchored in the moment.

Be Kind to yourself

Drawing and holding this boundary is crucial for self-preservation. This can help us improve our physical and mental health. Make time to unwind and engage in meaningful activities that being you peace and joy. Try and use helpful coping strategies such eating sufficient and healthy food, light exercise or engaging in physical activity, having a healthy sleep pattern and staying in contact with those who bring you joy. Avoid using unhelpful coping strategies such as use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs. In the long term, these can worsen your mental and physical well-being. Engage in those activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. That being said, also remember that self-care looks different for everyone - You are the person most likely to know how you can de-stress and you should not be hesitant in keeping yourself psychologically well. Do what works best for you.

Look out for each other

Make sure you check in on your friends and loved ones as well as these are hard times, particularly with those who seem to be strong and appear to have it all together. Not everyone is lucky to be with those who they love during this time which may make the situation harder for them - be there for them. Help children find positive ways to express feelings such as fear and sadness. If you are around children, keep an eye out for them and regularly check in with them for any distress they might be experiencing. Children feel relieved if they can express and communicate their feelings in a safe and supportive environment - so try and provide them that at best you can during these times.

Seek help when you need it

There is no harm in admitting that we all need some help to get by these tough times, so make your mental health a priority and reach out. There are several apps, helplines and services out there and patient ears which are ready to listen and help you through this. So don’t be hesitant or afraid to reach out for help - your feelings are all valid. Be gentle with yourself as you work through these days.

At this point as we find ourselves catastrophizing and wondering what will happen in the next moment, this limbo is unforgiving for our minds. These are times of high stress and with the worries of an impending war while also battling a pandemic can take a serious toll on our Mental Health and wellbeing, which is why it is important to be mindful while trying to be aware of what is in our control.

The best thing that we can do right now is to try to be calm, to look after ourselves and hold the hope that things will get better in the not-too-distant future.


Written by: Vedica Podar

March, 2022


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