From a distance many of us have watched bewildered, by the unconscionable war against the Ukraine. From this inhumane act has risen the indomitable spirit and solidarity of the people—a humanity that persists defiant of dominance.

Where does this courage come from?

How can we draw on valor to support the people of the Ukraine?

We asked psychologist, Kim Cullen to answer these questions—providing insight into the cultivation of courage under fire.

War refugees wave to their realtives as they evacuate to safer areas of the country. Kyiv, Ukraine, March 11, 2022. © Drop of Light / Shutterstock

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, stories emerge of the bravery demonstrated by citizens who are choosing to fight back. Watching video footage from a safe distance, we see civilians collectively take up arms, individuals who stand in front of tanks and one determined Ukraine women offering sunflower seeds to a Russian soldier, stating “so flowers will grow when you die”.

We’re witnessing with incredulity the atrocity of Putin’s actions and we’re amazed by the Ukrainian people’s courage in the face of such force. 

It would be easy to attribute such courage as a ‘fight or flight’ response, which has recently extended to include ‘freeze’ and ‘appease’. Ukrainians are indeed fighting for self-preservation, and no doubt in some instances, the inherent response of fight or flight plays a part. However, acts of courage are not limited survival instincts. Courage is more complex and runs deeper than primeval reactions, it includes determination, persistence, righteousness, compassion for others, and a sense of purpose. 

As Russian troops terrorise Ukrainian citizens, we can see conscious, deliberate defiance and conviction in defending their homeland and independence. This is evidence of ‘moral courage’, defined as overcoming fear in the face of injustice. Courage is not always ‘noisy’ though, sometimes it manifests in quiet resolve. This is ‘Psychological courage’, which centres around psychological stability and overcoming fear and personal limitations by taking control. This courage is demonstrated more covertly and can be seen in those Ukrainians that find the strength to endure another day while their life, loved ones and fundamental human rights are under threat. 

From afar, we might wonder where Ukrainians find the courage to fight while outnumbered and out armed. Regardless of what any act of bravery looks like, courage is based on protecting what we care about. It is intrinsic and powerful when the things we value most, such as life, freedom, choice, and love, are at risk.    

Whether overt or veiled, the extraordinary acts of courage demonstrated by the Ukrainian people is inspiring and can enhance pride and human resilience. But it can also romanticise war and minimise the impact on those courageous individuals, during and after conflict. Remember these acts of bravery are moments in time and not representative of the whole experience and the trauma associated with the constant threat to life, or the uncertainty of when and how it will end. Those who stand strong in the face of violence instigated by Putin may appear fearless and formidable, but they are still vulnerable to the effects of trauma, as are those who have understandably felt overcome and justifiably fled.   

Nations across the globe are offering encouragement, compassion, and assistance in support of the conflict that Ukrainians are now living on a daily basis. It will be equally important to continue to offer support in the aftermath.  

About the author: Kim has a Master’s degree in Applied Psychology (Organisational), is fully registered with APHRA, and has over 18yrs experience both in an organisational and clinical capacity within the public and private sectors. She applies her clinical skills through employee wellness programs, counselling services, and critical incident response and support via: cullenpsychology.com.au

Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.