When armed conflict arises — no matter where in the world it happens — Veterans can experience a range of challenging emotions as events unfold. This can be especially true for combat Veterans who may be reminded of their own deployment experiences.
Common reactions to disturbing events
Feeling distress is a normal response to negative events, especially those that feel personal. Veterans may experience the following reactions in response to current events in Ukraine:
- Feeling frustrated, sad, helpless, distressed (including moral distress), angry or betrayed.
- Worrying about civilians, such as interpreters, who worked with the U.S. military in the region.
- A spike in symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions.
- Sleeping poorly.
- Drinking more or using more drugs.
- Trying to avoid reminders of disturbing events, including media coverage and social situations.
- Having more memories of military experiences and homecoming.
- Questioning the meaning and sacrifices of serving in the military.
Veterans also may feel that they need to expect and/or prepare for the worst. They may:
- Become overly protective, vigilant and guarded.
- Become preoccupied with a sense of danger.
- Feel a need to avoid being shocked by, or unprepared for, what may happen in the future.
It can be helpful to let yourself experience those feelings rather than trying to avoid them. Often these emotions will run their course naturally. However, if they continue without easing up or if you feel overwhelmed by them, the suggestions below can be helpful.
Strategies for managing ongoing distress
When current events bring up traumatic memories, it can be helpful to focus on the present and engage in the activities that are most meaningful and valuable to you. Is there something you can do today – as a family member, parent or community member – that is important to you?
Can you put more energy into something meaningful in your work or your spirituality? These activities will not change the past or the things you can’t control, but they can help life feel meaningful and reduce distress, despite the things you cannot change.
It can also help to ask yourself if your thoughts are helpful to you right now. Are there ways you can change your thinking to be more accurate and less distressing? For example, are you experiencing extreme thinking that views the situation as all bad or all good?
If so, try and think in less extreme terms. Rather than thinking, “My military service was useless,” consider instead “I helped keep the world safe.”
Consider more general coping strategies:
- Engage in positive, healthy activities that are rewarding, meaningful or enjoyable, even if you don’t feel like it, as they can lift your spirits.
- Stay connected by spending time with people who give you a sense of security, calm or happiness, or those who best understand what you are going through.
- Practice good self-care by engaging in soothing activities, such as listening to music, exercising, practicing breathing routines, spending time in nature or with animals, journaling or reading inspirational materials.
- Stick to your routines and follow a schedule for when you sleep, eat, work, and do other day-to-day activities.
- Limit your media exposure, especially if it’s increasing your distress.
- Use a VA mobile app by visiting https://mobile.va.gov/appstore/mental-health.
- Try PTSD Coach Online, a series of online videos that will guide you through 17 tools to help you manage stress.
When to consider professional help
If your distress is prolonged or you are unable to function well, consider seeking support. At VA, Veterans can connect with compassionate professionals who have the education and experience to help manage depression, anxiety, PTSD, moral injury, complicated grief and other conditions that may be aggravated by current events.
- Every VA facility has mental health specialists. Visit https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/get-help/local-care.asp to find a provider near you.
- Talk about your reactions in community-based VA Vet Centers, where over 70% of staff are Veterans themselves. Call 1-800-WAR-VETS or find a Vet Center near you.
- Go to maketheconnection.net, an online resource designed to connect Veterans, their family members and friends, and other supporters with information, resources and solutions to issues affecting their lives — including challenging life events or experiences and mental health issues.
- If you feel as if you might hurt yourself or someone else, reach out now. Through the Veterans Crisis Line, confidential support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at veteranscrisisline.net/get-help-now/chat.