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The Psychology of Coping With War

12/08/2014 13:08 BST | Updated 11/10/2014 10:59 BST

A new exhibition launched this month in London showcases World War I writings and images from a slightly different perspective than usual. It reveals the point of view of the barristers and law students from Inner and Middle Temple, who left the bar to go off to fight. Whilst explorations of the centenary of World War I are all around us this year, casting a large shadow behind the ongoing worldwide conflicts reported every day in the news, this one strikes a slightly different tone.

Housed in the Temple Church in Fleet Street, the exhibition collates a mix of vivid descriptions of war horrors alongside humorous accounts of everyday pleasures and transcendental poetry. The same authors pen accounts which vastly contrast in mood. Bijan Omrani, author and curator of the exhibition, said: "Our experience of the First World War is frequently through its most famous poets - Owen, Sassoon - or else the ubiquitous memorials and their terrible roll-call of the dead. Curating this material has brought home to me that the soldiers' experience of war was far from an unmixed and monolithic melancholy. It was a conflict of light and dark."

One war diary, of HC Meysey Thompson, describes being shot in the face at Passchendaele, and the next day describes an encounter with a "charming red-headed Scotch nurse" on the hospital train, where he finds that "the sensation of travelling as a parcel - put into the train and taken out at appropriate times - is very soothing." Omrani commented: "Many of them managed to go through a horrifying experience of battle one day, and be (or affect to be) blithe and light-hearted the next."

This swapping back and forth between the horrific and the mundane or even jolly, is not uncharacteristic of common ways of ways coping with chronic trauma: the black humour of a doctors' mess, for example. Humour is known to be an effective coping strategy, associated with a lower risk of post traumatic stress disorder. The modern diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD, previously known as shell shock) involves a triad of symptoms: extreme anxiety, flashbacks or intrusive memories and a fierce desire to avoid thinking about or talking about the trauma.

Dr Amy Hardy, Research Clinical Psychologist at the Insititute of Psychiatry and specialist in trauma, explained: "Traumatic events, such as exposure to war situations, represent a challenge to our psychological wellbeing and have the potential to lead to a range of problematic responses. We are also impressively resilient at times, and a number of factors, such as social support and coping, can help us to adapt. Use of humour and faith can be important, although what works for one person may be less helpful for another. Recovering from trauma tends to involve feeling safe enough to think about and make sense of what we have been through, and having strategies to help us manage the difficult emotions involved."

Hardy warned against over-using some coping strategies: "It's important to strike a balance," she said. "Sometimes coping strategies like defensive humour, substance use or avoidance, can be less helpful if they prevent us from facing up to and coming to terms with what has happened."

Using writing, either of letters or diaries, might in itself have been a useful coping strategy, as we now know that writing has its own intrinsic therapeutic value. One theory is that it helps with the processing of traumatic memories, which if avoided too avidly can end up popping up as intrusive images or flashbacks. Another letter in the exhibition is from John Eugene Crombie, describing how he felt about the ethics of war:

"As for the morals of war, they are horrible... by fighting we have hopelessly degenerated our own morals." He described smoking out soldiers in a captured trench: "When they come out they are half blinded and choked with poisonous smoke, and you station a man at the entrance to receive them... the instructions are that these poor half-blinded devils should be bayoneted as they come up."

At around the same time (March 1917) the same man, Crombie, wrote a poem which includes this verse, a very different description than that of the choking men in the trenches: "Returning through the fields at evening hour/I lay before Thy shrine my offering,/My candle-flame a yellow crocus flower,/Its life but newly lit to Thee I bring

In thanks that I can see Thy guiding hand/In every flower that decorates the land."

The sense of religious meaning in the small available beauties conveyed by Crombie in this poem may also have been psychologically protective. Research suggests that for some, religious belief is a protective factor against PTSD. It seems likely that having a religious belief protects an individual from developing negative core beliefs about themselves, the world, or other people because they can make sense of traumatic events as necessary challenges to enable a better state of being in the next world. It might also be that strong religious beliefs allow people to tell a more coherent story of events in their minds, helping with the piecing together of traumatic memories in a more ordered way, which is helpful in preventing flashbacks.

Does including this patchwork of different wartime experiences in the Temple Street exhibition take anything away from the impact of the darker accounts? Omrani thinks not. "To acknowledge this, I think, does greater justice to those who fought and brings them closer to us. To endure unremitting darkness is one thing, but to endure the apparent absurdity of a cycle of hellish combat followed by a three-course French supper, and then back again, one might argue, requires an even greater level of mental strength."

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