Itʼs February again, I remember the explosions on the morning of the 24th. Iʼm worried and scared. Are these flashbacks? How to survive this month? ― Babelʼs psychological guide for civilians

Oksana Rasulova
Yuliana Skibitska, Tetyana Lohvynenko
Itʼs February again, I remember the explosions on the morning of the 24th. Iʼm worried and scared. Are these flashbacks? How to survive this month? ― Babelʼs psychological guide for civilians

Ангеліна Коткова / «Бабель»

The anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion is here. Facebook reminds of alarming posts in “a year ago” rubric, news about the possible strengthening of the offensive of the Russian Federation appear again, jokes about February flashbacks are increasingly common. “Babel” journalist Oksana Rasulova together with psychotherapist Artem Osypyan explains what flashbacks really are, how traumatic memories differ from negative ones (yes, these are different things) and how to help yourself and others cope with the past.

February 24th is around and I feel anxious and canʼt seem to control it. Why?

Any traumatic event causes an associative series — this is called imprinting. It can be negative or positive, depending on which events are remembered. Attention works selectively, and we remember individual details that become triggers. They trigger a reaction based on associations. Reminders can be the date itself, the end of winter, the news — and anxiety is with us again.

For many, February 24 is a series of traumatic events, which were accompanied by anxiety, uncertainty, panic fear. This date is especially symbolic in the first year. In addition, we understand that the events may repeat themselves, because the war with Russia continues.

The Russians also understand this, which is why they are launching psy-ops. For example, a rumor is spreading among the military that an enemy offensive will begin in the coming week. The military pass it on to their relatives, and people get worried. But it isnʼt known whether there will actually be an offensive.

So now it will be like this every February?

I think “February” and “February 24” are forever with us now. Although most people will find it easier as time passes. In the end, the date will become memorable, mournful — like, for example, the Day of Remembrance of the Holodomor Victims. But February 24 will never be fun for us, the date has been ruined. This is a normal reaction of a healthy psyche.

What are the memories?

By function, memories can be neutral, indicative of needs, or negative. The latter try to “protect” us from repeated negative experiences. Such are the traumatic ones. All memories can be related to smell, hearing, sight, taste, tactile sensations. Someone will be alarmed by sounds similar to explosions, someone by a bodily sensation similar to a blast wave, and still another by the smell after an explosion.

I often hear about flashbacks. What is that? Is every bad memory a flashback?

This word is mostly used incorrectly. References to February 2022 or something similar arenʼt flashbacks, but disturbing memories. If you are driving along the Zhytomyr highway, you started to remember and worry about what happened a year ago, but you got a hold of yourself and drive on — this is just a negative memory. Memories may be unpleasant or unwanted, but they are not intrusive. Flashbacks, though, are obsessive and arise spontaneously. Itʼs difficult to get rid of them.

Flashbacks throw the body out of balance. A person becomes aggressive, forgets what he or she was doing, falls out of conversation and reality in general. They donʼt necessarily arise through associations. For example, a person drinks coffee and suddenly falls into the memory of a tank battle.

The normal work of the psyche is healing. Despite some events, we live on. And flashbacks mean that this healing didnʼt happen. Most people donʼt have flashbacks — even for PTSD, itʼs not a key symptom. PTSD itself develops in 20% of military survivors of trauma, and in about 8% of civilians (but not in a country at war). That is, flashbacks happen even less often.

Why does a flashback occur?

There are elements of pathological processes in the psyche of every person. For example, you almost had an accident while driving. This is not a traumatic event. But you felt that you are not as complete and self-sufficient as it seemed. You will remember the situation for several days, because it has not been resolved. But you will continue to drive, and in new events on the road you will see that everything is fine with you, you have drawn conclusions, and everyone makes mistakes.

A flashback occurs when there is no opportunity to relive the situation and come out of it with a new experience. Trauma is associated with a specific context that cannot be replicated. The psyche has not found a way out, so it artificially places you in the past to relive the traumatic event over and over again and ultimately play it to its advantage. This must be done, because the psyche is “afraid” that the situation will repeat itself, and you will be unprepared again. I know an American veteran with PTSD who went to Bakhmut to see if he had finally gotten over his traumatic experience. But most people donʼt have such an opportunity, they cannot restore a sense of integrity and self-sufficiency in the same situation. In addition, such an experience of a traumatic situation can be dangerous, so itʼs better not to repeat it.

And if the memory is even stronger? For example, I seem to smell the same smells, hear the same sounds.

These are intrusive memories — an even deeper dive into a traumatic memory. Itʼs more intense than a flashback. The body is involved in the process of intrusion, mental processes turn into physical ones — this is called conversion. Most common negative memories are felt in the body, like a tingling sensation in the stomach or shortness of breath.

With an intrusive memory, a person doesnʼt feel his or her own personality. It is as if it falls into an alternative reality that reproduces the traumatic situation at the level of body perception. It seems that the same sounds are heard, the same images are seen, the same smells or tactile sensations are present. A person doesnʼt understand that this is a memory, but as if he or she is reliving the past. Tanks can be “seen” literally in the middle of the peaceful city. This does not happen with flashbacks — a person realizes that he or she is in a memory.

Okay, Iʼm not having flashbacks or intrusions. But Iʼm still worried about February 24 emotional background. How to protect myself from these memories and anxiety? I canʼt help listening to others and looking at the calendar.

Yes, you canʼt isolate yourself. You know that February 24 will come anyway. But you can understand that anxiety reminds you of your vulnerability. The body seems to want to ask what you were not ready for a year ago. Perhaps now you will be helped by preparation — pack an alarming suitcase, fill up the car, talk to relatives about plans if the situation worsens. You can take first aid courses or training on the training ground. These are safe conditions that can help reduce sensitivity. The more we learn about war, the easier it is to be in it. Being in context is normal.

Itʼs impossible to psychologically return to the status “before February 24”. Life has changed regardless of our wishes. Itʼs important not to deceive yourself and not to try to control what cannot be controlled. But if specific actions donʼt help to calm down, contact psychotherapists, try mindfulness, body-oriented therapy.

And what to do when I see that memories drive a person into uncontrollable anxiety?

Many people think that the best thing to do in such situation is to slap the nervous person. But itʼs ineffective. A person during a flashback or intrusion has a very active amygdala, which means a feeling of anxiety. So, first of all, it is necessary to create a sense of security. If you see that a person has fallen into a flashback, the easiest thing to do is to say, “Itʼs okay, youʼre in a safe place,” if thatʼs true. Of course, if not, it is necessary to ensure the following conditions — go to shelter, if there is an alarm, turn off the movie where there are sounds of explosions. This is a symbolic evacuation from the place where there are triggers. The phrases “Iʼm with you” or “Youʼre safe” may sound pathetic and banal, but they work. If you know a person well, you can choose the best words.

Next, you need to establish contact. Ask to look at you, say your name, or say your name. After that, return the feeling of the body — you can ask the person to take a deep breath, to squeeze your hands. This is called safe physical contact. But you should not touch a person if you know that he or she went through torture. Another option to return to reality is to ask to name the objects around or the color of the walls. This is for emergencies, usually conversation and contact pull a person out of parallel reality.

If this is happening to someone close to you, you can talk when the person comes out of the state of experiencing the traumatic memory. Say that you donʼt consider it a weakness, donʼt judge. Ask how you can best respond to such situations — start a conversation, touch, ask to name nearby objects. Perhaps a person knows what will annoy him or her, remind of the trauma, and what, on the contrary, will calm down. Also, offer to see a psychotherapist. But donʼt force it, this should be voluntary. Donʼt say exactly that a person is sick or needs treatment, give no orders.

How do I come back to reality if this is happening to me?

Self-help is possible, but for this you need to train. You can have an item with you ahead of time that will remind you: you need to return to reality. You can also list the objects around, name their colors, do breathing exercises.

But the problem is that in the state of experiencing a traumatic memory, itʼs difficult to think about these exercises. So you have to train. For example, in the US or French armies, it is mandatory to master the practice of mindfulness. The brain is trained to focus on reality. This habit can help in a stressful situation.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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