Bombed out hospitals. Tearful family goodbyes. Bodies shattered and wounded.
The scenes from the war in Ukraine are heartrending and nearly inescapable. And for many veterans, refugees and trauma survivors, they are deeply triggering.
Tampa therapist Yolanda Harper, LCSW, who works extensively with veterans, says many of her clients are finding that the images from Ukraine are reawakening old traumas.
“A lot of our prior military, especially those who served in Bosnia, are finding that those old memories are bubbling up,” says Harper, co-founder of Harper Therapy. “When they returned from combat, they got busy with careers and family and kept those memories under wrap. They didn’t have a sense that they were experiencing post-traumatic stress. Perhaps those feelings were just under the surface.”
And it’s not just veterans who can find coverage of the conflict triggering. Refugees, those who grew up in war zones and other trauma survivors can find the constant drumbeat of coverage upsetting. Even those without a history of trauma can be upset by images and stories of people suffering.
Harper says that one of the most important ways that we can take care of our mental health is to limit our consumption of the news and seek out mental health treatment. “Turn off the TV. Stop doom scrolling,” she says. “We tell ourselves we do it to stay informed, but how much new information are we really getting from watching lots of distressing coverage?”
Harper suggests scanning headlines or reading the first few paragraphs of stories about the war once or twice a day rather than constantly having the TV news playing. “We can keep on top of what is happening without digesting all the images,” she says.
She also recommends practicing mindfulness by focusing on small things in our daily lives that bring joy and comfort. “Connect with someone or something you care about, whether that is a family member, a friend, a pet or being in nature. Actively look for moments of joy. Notice how your coffee tastes. That can help you find a sense of peace in a world in chaos,” she says.
Harper echoes some classic advice from Mr. Rogers: “Look for the helpers.” Seek out stories of those who are aiding those in Ukraine, or assisting refugees resettle elsewhere, to reassure yourself that there are many good people working in the world. Look for ways that you can help at home.
Most importantly, Harper suggests that those who find themselves struggling seek out mental health care. People who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular, can ease their symptoms with Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART). ART is an evidence-based technique extensively used by the Department of Defense, veterans organizations and many therapists in private practice, including Harper.
ART uses bilateral stimulation of the brain to enable people to rewrite new endings to troubling memories. Most people find that their symptoms of trauma completely or near-completely resolve after just four sessions of ART, much faster than traditional talk therapy.
“There is always an opportunity for healing,” says Harper. “It doesn’t matter how long ago the traumatic event happened. People can always heal and find real relief from their symptoms.”