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Volunteers during war: Fight, flee, but help?

Understanding the psychological impact of war is key to effective volunteering. Choose tasks that interest you to alleviate people's suffering from war

To help others and yourself during a war, it's important to understand how people mentally perceive armed conflicts. Not all emotions and reactions can be controlled. This article will reveal what affects us the most and how to become an effective volunteer during military actions.

When a war is ongoing, people who are not participating in combat often ask themselves: how can I help? Inaction becomes a serious ethical problem for many. But not everyone can always do something.

This isn't just about situations where survival is the number one priority, like when people are forced to leave their homes, get injured, or lose access to food and water. 

Wars also cause long-term psychological harm, with common consequences including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. And we all experience these states differently.

This means that during military actions, it's especially important to carefully evaluate someone's actions or inaction. 

Some people can volunteer and work around the clock, while others are simply too scared to leave their room.

Let's explore what external factors influence our perception of war and how to start acting productively, considering our personal characteristics.

Do you want to help important initiatives and make the world a better place? Join our team of volunteers!

Choose an interesting task and make your contribution:

Why do we perceive wars differently?

In the 21st century, wars are generally given a strictly negative connotation, although attitudes toward them are not always negative.

First and foremost, the sociocultural context has a huge impact on the perception of military conflicts. In some communities, it's common to idealize wars, perpetuating vivid myths about battles and heroes. In this case, many people may feel excitement and enthusiasm at the thought of upcoming battles. Combat takes on a sacred meaning, and its participants gain high status in society.

A vivid example is the propaganda related to the Great Patriotic War in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries. How does this work on a mental level? For example, imagine the slogan «We can do it again» being so deeply ingrained in consciousness that war ceases to be frightening. It becomes a way to demonstrate greatness, strength, and bravery. When parades, fireworks, and public festivities replace mourning, war also seems to turn into a celebration.

In many cultures, the heroic deeds of warriors form the basis for legends, tales, and songs. Such stories often evoke positive emotions: pride in one's country and compatriots. And this is not about specific nations.

The Old Testament, the «Epic of Gilgamesh», the «Iliad», and «The Lord of the Rings» — thousands of texts convey messages about the importance of fighters, battles, and victories.

War as a phenomenon can inspire awe, reverence, and admiration if a person is in the appropriate cultural context.

The situation is exacerbated when society cultivates collectivism — for example, in China or the Philippines. In such cases, people may view war as a sacred duty or a common tool for protecting their interests. Consequently, the specifics of the political system also shape each person's attitude toward wars.

In this case, there may be no awe. But there may also be no other «collective emotions» — for example, compassion for the enemy. The main thing is to achieve the common goal.

However, it's not just about collectivism. In countries with a high degree of trust in authority, the reaction to war can be supportive simply because the government presents the conflict as necessary and just.

Religious beliefs are also very important. For instance, according to a Pew Research Center study, about 83% of Americans consider themselves «absolutely» or «fairly» religious.

A striking example is Buddhism, which actively promotes nonviolence. Of course, this has not protected Buddha's followers from various conflicts. However, the perception of war among adherents of this peaceful religion changes. People do not want to harm living beings and avoid doing so.

Other religions allow the right to self-defence and just (holy) war. Moreover, there are branches of major world religions that, in one way or another, allow aggression towards others.

Overall, the environment in which a person grew up or lives shapes their ideas about morality, and what is right and wrong. And no matter how much we want to once and for all declare that war is bad, too powerful forces affect people's psyche. Many factors influence behavioural reactions, emotional states, and ways of adaptation.

Therefore, today it is especially important to remember that our differences are not a reason for hatred, but a reason for dialogue.

Understanding how individual characteristics affect the perception of stressful situations in general, and war in particular, will also help us build a quality dialogue.

How people cope with war

We already understand that cultural norms, political views, and religious beliefs strongly influence people's emotional and behavioural reactions in the context of wars.

On an individual level, income, education, and social status are also important. For example, those who have the resources and opportunities for evacuation perceive combat operations much more calmly than people with modest salaries or refugees.

«But there are too many external factors, and it's difficult to systematise them. However, there are three basic reactions we all exhibit in response to stress: 'fight,' 'flight,' or 'freeze.' These do not depend on cultural context or a person's salary. They cannot be consciously controlled. By the way, psychologists also identify a fourth similar reaction: 'fawn,' when to survive, a person tries to appear as 'good' as possible», says trauma therapist Artem Zhilin.

For more details on these mechanisms, read the article.

In short, we do not choose to fight, flee, or freeze. When analysing people's behaviour during wars and other difficult situations, it's important to remember that instincts often play a decisive role.

Can you predict your reactions in critical conditions? Well, you need to accept a simple truth: you cannot.

However, there are personality traits that allow for some predictions. For example?

Extraversion. More sociable people sometimes cope with experiences even during wartime better due to their ability to find social support. They can actively engage in team actions, and organize group work. Ordinary news exchanges relieve an extrovert's nervous system.

Introverts should not be afraid to seek support, even if they are not yet able to give it to others. It is necessary to share, articulate, react, and interact.

High sensitivity. People prone to vivid emotional experiences in different situations may experience especially strong stress during wartime. They are more likely to face fear and panic. Neuroticism — a personality trait that, among other things, provokes constant anxiety — also leads to similar reactions.

In such cases, a person's ability to act effectively in dangerous conditions is under threat. Highly sensitive and neurotic people need to prepare especially carefully for volunteer and other public tasks during combat operations.

And those around them need to remember that there is no point in shouting at such a person, for example. This will become an additional trigger.

Empathy. People with high levels of empathy often experience anxiety and stress when witnessing others' suffering during wartime. This sometimes leads to depression, burnout, and apathy.

However, interestingly, empaths' ability to understand and sympathize also makes them extremely effective on the battlefield, in volunteer groups, and in everyday life when chaos reigns around. These people support comrades and help strengthen team bonds in various communities.

Similarly, other traits can be analyzed: stress resistance, infantilism, egocentrism, rigidity, and others. This will allow us to select effective support and adaptation mechanisms for each personality type.

Overall, to understand why we perceive wars and crises so differently, it is important to accept our differences and not expect specific reactions from ourselves and others. But if you have decided that you definitely want to help someone, try to protect yourself by following a basic algorithm.

How to act during the war to help others

1. Determine the direction. Think about which areas you can really benefit from what you can do, what you would like to learn, and what you enjoy. This could be medical assistance, cooking and distributing food, providing psychological support, working with children, caring for animals, etc.

2. Explore opportunities. Contact local charitable organizations, humanitarian groups, and government agencies to learn about volunteer projects. Make sure the values of the chosen program align with your own.

If there are no suitable opportunities locally, look at international organizations that provide assistance during armed conflicts: the International Committee of the Red Cross, and others.

3. Prepare. Once you have chosen a direction and selected projects for possible collaboration, give yourself time for preliminary preparation — even though the organizations themselves train volunteers.

Remember: volunteer work during wartime can be extremely challenging — both physically and emotionally. Knowledge of the terrain's features where you will work, first aid skills, basic survival skills, and more will always come in handy. Additionally, it is important to know the signs of stress states. This way, you can help yourself and others if necessary.

4. Follow instructions. Do not neglect the briefings and safety protocols of the organization you joined. Be ready to adapt to changing conditions on the ground, but always consider the regulations.

Volunteers who react too emotionally and make decisions outside of instructions can harm themselves and others.

5. Interact with other volunteers. Teamwork is crucial for effective aid delivery. Communicate, coordinate your actions, and support each other. Even if you are taking on individual tasks, try to integrate into the volunteer community.

6. Limit participation time. Set clear terms for yourself: what, for whom, and when you will do. If volunteer work has no specific goal and understandable duration, anyone can quickly burn out. Psychological overload sooner or later becomes unbearable.

Some people can go on a six-month volunteer mission. For others, it is more appropriate to volunteer one hour a week. It is important to take breaks.

7. Learn to accept freedom of action and inaction. There are no small acts of kindness. The effect accumulates and grows over time. Any help is important. You will become a real volunteer if you accept that scale is not as important as consistency. For example, it is better to donate one ruble a day to a charity than 500 rubles once every three years.

For some, it is enough to regularly take care of only themselves and their closest ones. This is better than trying to help everyone at once — and eventually breaking down. Accept your mental characteristics and those of other people. Act only if you are sure you can. Take care of yourself.

Reshim thanks volunteer Anna Filatova for preparing the article.