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Coping with Trauma in Times of Military Conflict

Updated: May 10, 2021

By Joy Epstein, MSW, Family Therapist

People may be struggling with stress, anxiety, and other emotional reactions during this time of unrest.

Purpose of counseling:

  1. Normalize feelings and reactions

  2. Strengthen coping skills

  3. Define and prioritize needs

  4. Develop strategies for addressing those needs

  5. Preventing future mental health issues

Goal: Empowerment: countering feelings of fear and helplessness

Dealing with Rational Fear

It is normal to be experiencing a wide range of emotions at this stressful time. Be aware that such intense feelings will cause physical and mental strain. You may feel generally fatigued and be having difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and eating normally. Many people may find themselves crying or getting angry more easily. In fact, you may direct irritation or aggression at people or things that usually would not bother you. Stressful times require us to be easier on ourselves when we may behave differently than we prefer. In fact, it is important to be extra caring of ourselves at this time.

Terrorist threats and the possibility of war instill feelings of helplessness and fear. Different people react and cope in vastly different ways. A person’s natural temperament, social support, prior life experiences, and coping skills combine to trigger that individual’s specific reaction. It is important, however, to be aware that even when students do not express verbal concern, they may still be having strong internal reactions.

Possible reactions:

  1. Preoccupation with terrorist incidents and war

  2. Watching the media frequently

  3. Increased reactivity to small issues and events

  4. Increased moodiness and anxiety

  5. Changes in sleeping and eating patterns

  6. Strained relationships with loved ones-either increased isolation or irritability

  7. Increased use of alcohol or drugs

  8. Increased hostility toward or fear of foreigners

People have many ways of coping with stress, some of which are more effective than others. Some effective ways of coping with conflict related emotions are:

Physical: Normalizing disrupted patterns

  1. Sleep regular hours; to facilitate sleeping:

  2. drink warm milk before bed

  3. avoid caffeine after 3 PM and alcohol before bed

  4. eat something light before bed

  5. get up at a regular time no matter how well you have slept, however, if you need a nap, take one, but try to stay active during the day

  6. read or listen to something relaxing before bed (this means no strenuous exercise and no war news!)

  7. Eat a balanced diet at regular intervals

  8. even if you are not hungry, eat a little at each mealtime

  9. Exercise moderately each day. A brisk walk will do. (Stress prepares people physically to fight or flee. Regular exercise discharges this energy more productively.  Without such release, the energy may be turned inward creating fatigue or turned outward creating conflicts in your relationships.)

Emotional/Spiritual: Managing our feelings and dilemmas

Recognize what you can and cannot control. We may not have much control over the conflict activities, but we can control many things in our daily lives. One way people try to gain a sense of control is by gathering information about the situation. Unfortunately, sometimes having more information can increase stress. It is wise to monitor whether media exposure has a positive or negative impact on you and how much is right for you. And for those of you who do not want to hear about the situation, listening to the radio or watching T.V. may involuntarily expose you to frequent updates.   Therefore you may want to engage in other activities for entertainment. Other ways to gain control over your life are:

  1. create a schedule of study and recreation and stick to it

  2. talk about your feelings, but avoid talking solely with persons who are only negative and pessimistic

  3. express your opinions but avoid heated arguments

  4. recognize that thoughtful people of goodwill may come to very different conclusions from yours

  5. express yourself creatively (singing, dancing, cooking)

  6. do something fun; laughing at serious times is OK

  7. escape in healthy ways (video games, movies, hikes, NOT overeating or abusing drugs or alcohol)

  8. reach out to family and friends

  9. pray or meditate

  10. seek out religious or spiritual communities

  11. seek support groups or counselors if you continue to feel distressed

10 Tips for Resilience in Times of Military Conflict

  1. Make connections. Keep in touch with family, friends, and others. Connecting with people provides social support and strengthens resilience. Some people find comfort in connecting with a higher power, whether through organized religion or privately.

  2. Have a plan. Having an emergency plan in place will make you feel in control and prepared for the unexpected. Establish a clear plan for how you, your family, and friends will respond and connect in the event of a crisis. Have a family or neighborhood meeting to talk about whom to call in emergencies or designate a place to meet if you can’t reach someone by phone. Make a plan for your pets and a list of items you will need to take in an emergency.

  3. Prepare a security kit. When pulling together an emergency kit, remember to include those things that give you comfort and security, such as a favorite book, a journal, or pictures of loved ones. Also include a list of your loved ones’ phone numbers so that you can reestablish connections with them as soon as possible.

  4. Help yourself by helping others. Assisting others in a time of need, such as doing volunteer work at a community organization or helping families of active reservists or military personnel serving in the war, can be empowering.

  5. Maintain a daily routine. Keeping up with your daily routine of work, errands, household chores, and hobbies provides you with a feeling of stability when the world around you seems chaotic. Sticking with a routine can be comforting to your children as well.

  6. Take care of yourself. Make time to eat properly, exercise, and rest. Schedule time for things you enjoy, such as hobbies and social activities. Caring for yourself and even having fun will help you stay balanced and enable you to better deal with stressful times.

  7. Give yourself a “news” break. Be sure to control the amount of time you and your family spend watching and reading war-related news coverage. Although it’s natural to seek out the news to keep informed, too much news can make you more anxious. Consider limiting your news intake to no more than one hour a day, and try not to watch the news right before you go to bed, when you need to “wind down.” It’s okay to turn off the TV or radio and allow yourself to focus on non-war-related things.

  8. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Recall the ways you have successfully handled hardships in the past, such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce, or a major illness. Draw on these skills to meet current challenges. Trust yourself to solve problems and make appropriate decisions.

  9. Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Remember that wars end, and circumstances can ultimately improve. Previous generations have faced war and gone on to prosper—use their examples to inspire you.

  10. Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic and positive outlook enables you to see the good things in your life and can keep you going even in the hardest times. There are positive things in everyone’s life, such as good health, a comfortable home, and strong friendships. Taking the time to identify and appreciate them will enhance your outlook and help you persevere.

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