As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy toured the devastation in Bucha this month — where bodies of civilians lay in the street and buildings were destroyed — his haunted face seemed to show the toll of Russia’s war in Ukraine, reported by NPR.
The 44-year-old’s normally shaved face was bearded and lined, his forehead scrunched in distress and his eyes with heavy bags underneath.
They are the hallmark physical signs that can appear on anyone who is going through intense trauma and stress — particularly in wartime, according to Glenn Patrick Doyle, a psychologist who specializes in trauma.
Trauma and stress wreak havoc on the human body after prolonged exposure, Doyle told NPR. Over time, sleep, attention, memory, mood, physical appearance and so much else are impacted.
The people of Ukraine, particularly Zelenskyy, are likely experiencing these symptoms as they struggle against the Russian invasion and constant air raid sirens and as many flee their homes, he says.
“The thing to understand about trauma and the body is that stress responses kind of hijack every otherwise ‘normal’ function of our body,” he says. “The bodily processes that keep us focused and regulated on a normal day get kind of suspended for the duration of the stressor and replaced with processes designed to help us just get through the stressful experience.”
As head of his country, Zelenskyy is in a particularly unique position and one that can leave long-term health impacts.
When we experience physical or emotional stress, the human body produces cortisol, the primary stress hormone. It contributes to the physical changes of the body under long-term stress, Dr. Nicole Colgrove, a specialist in otolaryngology at Virginia Hospital Center, told NPR.
“Over time, it’s as if our actual personality or values systems get replaced by trauma responses, which can make living a life and having relationships almost impossible,” Doyle says.
That transformation happens similarly regardless of age, according to Colgrove.
“Many trauma survivors come through their experiences with negative beliefs about their worth or their efficacy,” he says. They often believe the world is dangerous, unpredictable and not worth living in.
Long-term psychological disorders can also develop from this time.
But there is hope with the right care.
“Psychologically, as people begin to heal, I’ve seen people regain their sense of humor and ability to connect and trust others, both of which are signs that healing is actually starting to happen,” Doyle says. “But it can be a long road. A long, long road.”