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Supporting veteran mental health during the Ukraine conflict - Written by Emma McDonald, WWTW mental health therapist.

Are you a veteran finding the ongoing events in Ukraine overwhelming? Are current events leading you to re-experience some of the events from your own military service? You are not alone I promise you, as a therapist I am hearing the impact on veterans’ mental health in the therapy room and in my volunteer role as a Petty Officer in the SCC where I work alongside veterans.


At present many veterans are approaching me with a multitude of different feelings about the events in Ukraine. I am hearing anger, anger at unprovoked and unjustified attacks. I hear sadness, sadness for the people of Ukraine, for their suffering. I hear helplessness, a willingness to help support the people of Ukraine but acknowledging the limitations in how we can provide support. I am hearing fear, anxiety about potential threats not only to Ukraine but to the West. I acknowledge the struggles I hear, the flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, low mood, irritability, and anger. I want to help you like I am helping other veterans and therefore below I provide some top tips on how you can support your wellbeing through this difficult time.

1. Calm your mind and your body by using diaphragmatic breathing (also known as belly breathing)

Diaphragmatic breathing involves engaging fully the abdominal muscles, stomach and diaphragm when breathing to help efficiently fill the lungs. Did you know the average breath is often shallow and does not engage the diaphragm much? Well with this technique we are consciously going to engage the diaphragm to take deeper breaths to help alleviate stress and anxiety.

Let’s begin.

 Place one hand on the middle of the upper chest and place the other hand just beneath your rib cage.

Inhale slowly through the nose, your stomach should rise upwards towards your hand and your hand on your chest should remain still.

Exhale by tightening the abdominal muscles and let the stomach fall downwards as you slowly breathe out through pursed lips, again your chest should remain still.

Practice for 5-10 minutes 3-4 times per day.

2. Pull away from flashbacks and reduce distress by grounding yourself in the present moment

Your mind may be re-living experiences from your military service through intrusive images and nightmares, these can often be vivid and leave you experiencing similar levels in the intensity of emotion that you did at the time of the event/s.

One way to help pull away from intrusive images and reduce distress is by quickly grounding yourself back into the present moment, helping your mind and body to realise you are no longer there at the time of the trauma/memories. Look around you now, have a go at this technique.

·        Name 5 things you can see

·        Touch 4 things

·        Name 3 things you can hear

·        Smell 2 things

·        Take 1 slow deep breath.

3. Pull away from flashbacks and reduce distress by acknowledging the current surrounding environment

Unfortunately, the traumatised brain has difficulty in discriminating between past events and current experiences which makes you feel like you are re-living your memories in the here and now, this causes great distress. We need to give the brain a helping hand to see that you are no longer at the time of the trauma by listing all the things that are different now compared to the trauma e.g., date, time, weather, environment, people present as some examples, conclude this list with reassuring yourself that you are safe now in this moment.  

4. Coping with stories of suffering, gaining a balanced perspective

There are many heart-breaking stories and images depicting the suffering of the Ukrainian people. This can evoke many emotions for us all, but particularly for veterans. At times of tragedy, it is understandable that the mental filter in our mind focuses on the horror, the negative that we are seeing. To help regain some balance and aid your well-being balance this horror by thinking also acknowledging the acts of kindness we have seen, the support human beings are offering one another, the acts of love.

5. Take a break to reduce distress, limit media exposure

We are bombarded with news stories relating to Ukraine, from live updates to stories of suffering on social media/news channels, these can all take a huge toll on our mental wellbeing. Give yourself permission to switch off, take time to engage in a hobby or talk to friends.

If you are feeling overwhelmed if the events in Ukraine are impacting your mental wellbeing, please reach out, there are services here to support you through this time. Know that you do not have to walk through this time alone.

 If you are suicidal or at risk of harming others, call 999. If you feel that you are at risk, call the Samaritans on 116 123, if you need to talk to someone, please call the Combat Stress helpline on 0800 138 1619. Alternatively, you can call Op COURAGE, the new NHS veteran high-intensity mental health service. It is important to contact the Op COURAGE for your local area. Find out more: https://bit.ly/35w87Af