Feb. 25, 2021 — Hypervigilance, sadness, rage, anger.
Many young Ukrainians have taken to Instagram to express their emotions as Russian forces continue their push deeper into the country.
Political unrest between Ukraine and Russia has a long history, but this is the first major conflict in the region since 2014.
Recalling childhood stories from past crises with Russia, one common sentiment among millennials and Gen-Z Ukrainians on social media is, “I’ve always been afraid of war,” as well as, “How could this happen in the 21st century?”
Expressing these thoughts and feelings online is a great way for young people to help manage fear, anxiety, and other troubling emotions they may be having, says Shari Botwin, a licensed clinical social worker and author of Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing.
Focusing on creating physical and emotional safety is also critical.
“Be on the phone, FaceTiming, talking, writing,” Botwin says.
“I think it’s so important right now to be reaching out and talking to people, especially the younger folks over there [in Ukraine] being able to use things like social media,” she says.
“This is one of those situations where we don’t have control over what’s happening, but I think being able to speak and say and connect with other people on these feelings can actually make the situation a bit more manageable.”
Asya, 36 years old, from central Ukraine, currently in California.
“To be honest I was just crying for the whole day. I feel helpless, and I am very scared for my family and Ukrainian people.”
“My friends react differently, some are calm and prepared to fight, others are scared and trying to run away from the country. My cousin lives right in the middle of all that mess, and the only thing he tells me is ‘don’t worry everything will be okay,’ while I am panicking here.”
It’s important for young Ukrainians to understand that what they’re feeling right now is normal and makes sense, Botwin says.
“Any emotion that would be attached to PTSD are emotions they are going to be experiencing,” she says. “I think some of them were feeling this even before 48 hours ago, when bombs started going off. As soon as there was imminent threat that the Russians were going to attack, I think PTSD was already settling in.”
Tanya, 28 years old, from eastern Ukraine, currently in the U.K.
“No one should wake up to the words ‘the war has begun,’ especially from the sound of gunshots or bombs. I now live far from Ukraine, but even I am shaking all morning. I can’t imagine how my friends and family are there right now. I don’t know what to say to people in this situation. And would prefer not to find out. But since we’re here guys, just don’t panic and have a clear plan of action just in case.”
Being proactive in voicing frustrations can also help, according to Botwin.
“They can’t make it stop, but they can certainly protest, say how they feel, and do what they can do to take some action,” she says. “I think anything that’s about expressing your emotions and trying to find a way to take a situation that’s bigger than ourselves, and feeling like they can find some control in that situation.”
Keep Talking It Through
It’s critical that Ukrainians continue to talk through their feelings even after things smooth over, because these types of emotions will not go away, Botwin says.
In fact, these feelings could heighten.
“For some people, they are going to feel war as weeks go by,” says Botwin.
“That’s when you are going to realize just how awful everything you’ve been through or what you’ve seen was or is. So, it’s almost more important to sometimes say to people, ‘Even if you can’t speak a lot right now, you are going to need to talk about this even more once things start to quiet down.’”
Continuing to unpack the whole experience — not just what occurred during the invasion — will be a major way to help prevent severe chronic posttraumatic stress, deep depression, or anxiety disorders in the future, says Botwin.
Speaking with a mental health professional will definitely help, but speaking to others who experienced something similar can foster “that sense of connection” and “not feeling crazy or alienated in your feelings.”
“When people go through these things — even though they know other people have gone through it — unless they talk to other people, they are still going to feel stranded in it,” Botwin says.
“Then they can also offer each other suggestions and resources, and they can encourage each other.”