Just as an individual can have mental health issues, a society can be affected by the emotional and psychological stressors that shape it.
Some Ukrainian psychologists and social scientists have previously endorsed the idea that Ukraine suffers from chronic post-traumatic stress (PTS) which has historically accumulated through events such as the country’s experience under Russian imperialism. , the Holodomor, World War II and systemic repression. national and human rights in the Soviet era.
It follows that the national STP of Ukraine has been severely exacerbated by the events of the past eight years. This includes the murder of protesters during the Euromaidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass and, of course, the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation since February 2022. This societal trauma adds to acute PTS directly acquired through personal exposure to war by more than half a million Ukrainian soldiers, thousands of social service personnel and countless Ukrainian citizens.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, Ukraine’s PTS could actually play a role in the country’s defense and its future post-war recovery. This is because PTS tends to “play” in different ways.
Above all, PTS is not static. Those who suffer from PTSD often adapt or compensate for their condition in varying situations. Let’s move from the individual level to the national level in how the PTS “plays”, specifically through cognitive symptoms (how we think) and arousal symptoms (how we behave and react).
In terms of cognition, a key symptom of PTSD can be persistent feelings of fear, anger, shame, or guilt. Here, a subject can either undercompensate or overcompensate their feelings. On the one hand, it can mean avoidance and self-harm behaviors. Against the backdrop of Ukraine’s troubled past, few are surprised by the country’s relatively high levels of alcoholism and suicidal tendencies.
On the other hand, managing PTS may mean a higher level of active decision-making or choosing to face fear and fight rather than freeze or run away. Beyond the powerful drivers of patriotism and democratic values, this reflex highlights the very high levels of Ukrainian resilience and self-mobilization displayed during the latest episode of Russian imperial aggression.
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Ukrainians know fear. They also know how to overcome it. This includes staying together in adversity. Indeed, some behavioral researchers believe that, for many people with PTSD, there may be a “safety system” based on the brain circuitry and chemistry responsible for social affiliation.
This bodes well not only for the current period of open warfare, but also for the future phase of recovery, which can itself be a source of fear and anxiety. The reconstruction of Ukraine will not only be a political, economic and social imperative, but also potentially a restorative psychological process. Collective and participatory healing will be a rudder on the stormy seas that await the Ukrainian nation.
A key symptom for many who suffer from PTSD is hyper-vigilance. Subjects don’t want to be re-traumatized. They constantly assess and analyze their physical, spiritual, social or emotional environment in search of risks. When left unrecognized, untreated or unmanaged, it can lead to psychological paralysis, defensiveness, anger and high levels of isolation, which were arguably evident in some of the fragmented policies before – war in Ukraine.
On the other hand, in a crisis, it can also be a near-supersonic survival skill at individual, organizational and national levels. The default mode for many Ukrainians is to identify, assess and mitigate risk. This is partly conditioned by the disproportionate number of high-risk situations their country has endured.
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Western analysts often comment on the impressive operational autonomy and proactivity exhibited by the Ukrainian military and even individual Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield. Think of the sapper whose initiative led to the destruction of a battalion of Russian tanks on the Donets River. Bravery aside, Ukraine’s historical experience may also be a contributing factor. Many Ukrainians are emotionally wired to deal with danger. It’s one of the perverse gifts of their inherited trauma.
There will probably be a lot of societal changes in post-war Ukraine. In some ways, Ukrainians will have a greater ability than most societies to thrive under such difficult circumstances. This is due to the globally admired resilience that is at the heart of the world’s current love affair with Ukraine. This resilience is at least partially based on past experience, both personal and inherited. After all, our best therapists are our experiences.
The psychological strength of Ukrainian society is likely to grow further in the post-war period. There is a large body of research and practice indicating that an increased sense of security is a prerequisite for managing PTS. Every day without bombs is not only a day without death or injury, but also a day of safety and space for personal and national restoration on an emotional level. Over time, this process gains significant momentum.
For years Ukrainians joked that their country was so wonderful because God knew they were going to have to live with the worst neighbor on the planet. The horrors of the current war underscore the deeply damaging impact of Russia’s destructive relationship with Ukraine. At the same time, centuries of traumatic experiences have shaped today’s Ukraine in ways that may actually contribute to Russia’s defeat and enable Ukrainians to build a better future for themselves.
Pete Shmigel is an Australian writer with a background in politics, mental health and Ukrainian.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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