The Cognitive Effects of War
It’s well known that war and conflict can cause immense psychological trauma. How do these traumas affect cognition and mental health in the long term? What methods can help people work through these experiences and hopefully alleviate symptoms of trauma? We’ll explore these questions in this article, referencing studies that have explored these topics and found promising information.
If you or someone you know has experienced trauma from the conflict in Ukraine, you can find help and resources here. (Please note, this site is available in Ukrainian and French. However, you can automatically translate the site pages via Google Chrome.)
The cognitive effects of war
One study examined the effects of war on the cognition of older individuals who were exposed to war-related events during the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict. After controlling to rule out socio-economic and health reasons, the researchers found that there was a distinct correlation between exposure to war and worsened cognitive functioning.
To most people, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. It makes sense that trauma impacts our brains and may affect our cognitive functions. For example, stressful events can lead to an increase in cortisol. Cortisol not only makes us feel stressed and on-edge, but also affects memory. Some studies have shown that traumatic events may lead to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. These risks are greater for older individuals, who are at higher risk for cognitive decline in the first place.
The cognitive effects of traumatic events and grief can vary widely. Memory is often affected, but language, executive function, and even visual-spatial skills can be affected as well. Survivors may have trouble finding the words they want to say. Executive functions such as planning, problem-solving, and decision-making may become difficult. Even impairments to depth perception are possible. While these cognitive effects of trauma tend to get better over time, they can be overwhelming to deal with for someone who has just experienced a traumatic event.
There is an interesting (and hopeful) finding: the researchers from the Israeli-Gaza conflict study found that social connectedness lessened the cognitive effects of experiencing war-related trauma. Individuals who had strong social connections in their lives experienced much less impact on their cognitive functioning than those who didn’t have a strong social life and support system.
Social connection is vital for cognitive health, whether an individual is dealing with trauma or not. Interaction with loved ones, as well as a sense of belonging, are so beneficial for our brains. Through social connection, our brains are stimulated which can help to maintain cognitive health. Connection with loved ones also increases oxytocin, which may help to prevent cognitive decline. Social connectedness seems to keep our brains balanced – stimulated and calm at the same time. In a way, it’s like a cognitive exercise that you can build into your life.
How can war trauma survivors manage their mental health and cognition?
Each individual who has experienced war-related trauma will have a unique experience. Different resources may be more effective for certain people than others.
Mental health services are often stretched thin during peaceful times, and much more so in times of war. While not always the ideal solution, it is often up to the individuals facing traumas to find solutions for managing their mental health.
One study focused on trauma survivors of the Syrian Civil War. It found that mental health results were generally more effective when the individual took an active role in seeking out solutions that worked for them. Even when it’s incredibly difficult, acting on the ability to act rather than giving up is empowering and helpful for moving forward.
War-related trauma survivors often experience a sense of powerlessness. This can lead to an emotionally complex cycle, where they may feel unable to change or affect their own lives. They may feel hopeless, angry, or depressed. This can lead to trouble eating, practicing hygiene, or socializing, even if these things are available to them. Whenever possible, taking action and making small efforts to help themselves can slowly help to rebuild a survivor’s sense of well-being.
Alcohol and substance abuse are common issues. Substances act as a temporary emotional bandage, however, the downfalls far outweigh the short-lived relief. These habits can add to the emotional complexity of trauma, as well as contribute to a decline in physical health. They can make mental health recovery take much longer.
Steps for addressing mental health
Once a person who has survived war trauma is in a safe place where they are able to begin rebuilding their lives, there are some steps they can take to address their mental health. If possible, seeking out mental health services can be very beneficial and guide the individual toward recovery. Whether the survivor is able to see a professional or not, the following self-care steps can be helpful as well.
Accepting the emotions they are experiencing is an important step. If we try to ignore our emotions, they will come back until we can no longer ignore them. It is okay to feel scared or depressed or angry. It is okay to grieve. Simply feel the emotions without a need to take action on them.
Building healthy routines is another way to help oneself. This can include getting enough rest, eating healthy meals, and getting daily exercise such as going for a walk.
Doing calming activities can also provide benefits. This depends on the individual’s preferences. Watching a funny or uplifting movie, meditating, exercising, stretching, doing breathing exercises, cooking, reading…it could be anything that makes the individual feel a bit more calm and centered. Activities like this help to lessen the body’s stress response, and remind the person that they are now in a safe place and can allow themselves to feel calm.
Connecting with others around them is an additional important step. We can’t stress the importance of social connection enough! Talking to loved ones and making new friends can benefit mental health and cognition in unprecedented ways. Socializing can help survivors to feel more supported, calm, and capable.
While war-related trauma is something no one should have to deal with, unfortunately, it is a common occurrence in our world. Whenever possible, mental health services can help survivors gradually overcome mental health challenges and feel better.
If mental health services are not an option due to geographical or financial constraints, there are ways to help oneself. Accepting emotions, building healthy routines, doing calming activities, and connecting with loved ones can help a survivor begin to address the challenges of trauma and mental health.
The Écoute Psy Ukraine platform offers resources for war trauma survivors to address their mental health, and to find local resources that can help. It is geared toward Ukranian refugees living in France, but the information and exercise sheets can be helpful for other war trauma survivors as well. (The website can be translated into your native language via Google Chrome.)
We hope that this article is helpful to people who have suffered from war-related trauma, and to clinicians who are helping survivors. Following the steps listed in this article may help survivors to address mental health challenges and begin to feel better.