Episode 12

Kristina (psychologist) shares her experience of treating war victims in Iraq

Episode Notes

Kristina Sandstrom (Mum of two) is a Counselling Psychologist specialising in Trauma. In this episode Kristina shares how an opportunity (NGO) to travel to and live in war torn Iraq to heal traumatised victims was a fairly easy move for her since it aligned with her core values. Kristina shares as much as she can about the circumstances, her role to establish trust and how she dug deep to keep herself in a healthy mindset.


[Roksana] My guest today is a Psychologist who specialises in stress and trauma. She has over 13 years of experience and her specialist interest is trauma in early attachment. She’s worked in the NHS, the military and Ministry of Defence, and private trauma clinics. She’s provided countless people with therapy. She believes that therapy is not about changing who we are, but becoming who we were meant to be before the experience. Now over the past couple of years, she’s taken on the brave and ambitious role of working for an NGO in Northern Iraq. She is supporting genocide victims from the 2014 ISIS attack. I am in complete awe of her courage. Please welcome Kristina Sandstrom.

[Kristina] Hello, thank you so much for having me.

[Roksana] Oh welcome, welcome Kristina. Now you came on last time and I asked you the big question. What I’d love to know today is just a little bit more about- tell us a bit about your back story, Kristina.

[Kristina] I was very, very sociable. My friends were incredibly important to me and I spend a lot of time just hanging out with my friends in different scenarios, especially in the stables. And the stables really made-  it was a tough environment you really you know I remember falling off my horse when we were in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere. I broke my arm there was no point telling the guy who is heading out to check that it was broken, even though I knew, even though I was young, it was just to get back on the horse and ride home. So you really kind of developed that sense of toughness and yeah and I think that really helped. Then we also- in our family which was good, very strong work ethics, so my parents said to me that I could only have one riding lesson per week, but I really wanted more so me and my good friend started doing a paper round when we were 11… and then I managed to pay for another riding lesson so I started working very, very early… and then I worked in the company my dad was working in, and then it just really carried on like that. It was always to strive for something different, always strive forward, for what I wanted really.

[Roksana] Sounds amazing to develop that at a young age, that kind of work ethic and the resilience that although probably at the time felt a little bit uncomfortable, but I guess it was a big dose of tough love to kind of pick yourself up and keep moving forward.

[Kristina] Yeah and you know what I think it is, it was also a way of escaping things that were difficult. You know you could keep moving, keep striving, you not really so aware of what’s happening not not a promise that you are as a child anyway I don’t know when people are- I think for me that was sort of a way of overcoming that… to just going and pushing and pushing forward.

[Roksana] It sound like a healthy- healthy distraction.

[Kristina] It could have been worse, it could have been worse.

[Roksana] So you talk about work ethic, you talk about resilience, and you talk about being sociable and having really good friends around you – how much of that is part of your current life?

[Kristina] I think it’s really the cornerstones of my life, really I couldn’t- I couldn’t- absolutely I couldn’t do without my friends and family so I’m very lucky that I have them. I don’t- I’m not someone who socialises with hundreds of people, not really into parties and so on, but I do have my good close friends and so that’s very very important to me, yeah. And work ethic, I think you know when things are difficult like right now for example, it is something that it is the strive together move forward and do different things that is still there, it’s still part of me. Obviously it’s not there everyday, so don’t get me wrong I really have tough days too, so I want to make that clear… but I think there is part of me that really kind of strives to do something different and strive through, move forward.

[Roksana] Amazing, amazing… and I think you just touched on a point there, I also believe as a coach – often people think that being a psychologist, being a coach, being a therapist of some description, means that you don’t really have challenges because you’ve got all the tools that you need, but actually we’re all in the trenches aren’t we? We all have our days that days and we have to lean on those tools to keep us moving forward.

[Kristina] Absolutely and I think anyone does, or they’re perhaps not touching into their own difficulties and vulnerabilities, I would go as far as saying, and of course we have more and less vulnerabilities as well, depending on our upbringing, but I think that’s true and also it gives us empathy and understanding. It helps us to drop the judgmental bit, and to be humans because I’m sure in your job it’s the same. I would imagine you know, being human just meeting a person, human to human- that is the biggest thing. Forget all the tools, forget the training, blah blah blah, but that’s the thing that really is important I think.

[Roksana] I believe so too, I believe so too. I think that we’re on the same page Kristina. Now Kristina, in the introduction obviously I mentioned that you are working for an NGO in Northern Iraq and you’ve been supporting genocide victims from the 2014 ISIS attack. Now before we go into what you’re doing and how you’re supporting people, I’d love to know what led to that moment if you making that decision and then you acting bravely enough to go out there and put yourself in a warzone?

[Kristina] I saw an ad that was looking for psychologists that had EMDR experience and trauma experience of working with severe trauma, and interpreters and so on… and because I had that experience from NSH and it was my particular, uh, what’s the word I’m looking for? It was something that was very close to my heart anyway so when I read it I thought, hmm, I probably don’t want to go out there because my life was all stable and rural, but I could perhaps could support and with the experience I had. So we set up a Skype call and I must say within the first 5 minutes I was hooked, because they were just so lovely, they were doing such amazing work and I was so humbled with their commitment and just everything that they were doing. So it took me a little while to decide and then off I went, really. I think you know having lived in the Middle East, especially during difficult times with the first Gulf War, I was familiar a little bit with culture and knowing things are fairly local when things go wrong obviously, can be in the wrong place wrong time, so I wasn’t worried. I’d always been interested in Middle Eastern politics so I had you know, a fair understanding for how things were, and to keep myself as safe as I could be, and I trusted the organisation too as they had good security updates and so on.

[Roksana] Wow, amazing. So just backtracking a little bit, before you saw the advert and before you had the conversation and before you were compelled and drawn to go off & sign up, what was going on in your life before then? Because you said that life was fairly stable and I’d love to know what was going on for you that then led you to think I’m ready for this big change?

[Kristina] Right, well I had left the NHS in 2016 and as I briefly mentioned, a big part of my work there was working with refugees and asylum seekers, so that was something that I knew I really, really treasured. So what was I doing, I was having my private clinic and I was working for a private trauma clinic at that time. So it was all- yeah it was all private work with people who were able to pay for therapy which I think is great, but I think it was a part of me that was- after experiencing the NHS, I just love working with people who would never be able to be able to afford therapy. Just something about that touched me. So yeah, things were going well, I was doing that, I was busy and, it was just moving on but I think there was a little bit of a vacuum there and the longing to do something more.

[Roksana] It sounds like you had a desire to contribute.

[Kristina] Yes and please don’t get me wrong, because I think I have had clients that come to me and say well you know, I see that you worked with refugees and people in Iraq and my problem is not like that, and I would really really encourage people to think about it differently… because if you have a problem, that is your problem, that’s your pain, that’s your wound, and there isn’t one injury that’s more important than another. I think for me it was about doing a little bit of both really and just being able to help people that were in desperate situations. I couldn’t- I couldn’t get it out of my head in 2015 when Syria erupted, that you know if that had been me with my children I would have done anything to get them to safety. I found it sad that the world were, you know they were struggling, and I know it’s big responsibility but I think that was something also that that touched me.

[Roksana] I think that Kristina what you’re saying, is that lots of us see the news, lots of us see what’s going on in Iraq, lots of us see what’s going on in Syria and whilst we feel- we feel for people and we might contribute in our own way in the sense of maybe donating or supporting in a small way, there’s not many people who feel compelled enough to want to go and physically put themselves in position where they are directly facing the victims and supporting them and I- you know I really want to just press on that for a moment because that’s- there’s not many people that do that and I think that the fact that you were compelled to contribute in that way, I think is huge and I just want to take a minute to recognise the hugeness of that.

[Kristina] Yeah I hear- I hear it said to me a lot. Where I’m coming from with that is I feel enormously lucky and privileged to be able to have the skills that I have to do the job I do. It’s, you know, maybe I bring help to these amazing people in Iraq but what they give back to me it’s- yeah it’s 100 times more, without a doubt. What you get back when you help is just- yeah it can’t be put into words, really.

[Roksana] We’ll go onto that in a minute. So tell me, Kristina, when you got to Iraq and then you were giving your area of people that you need to take care of, what was that moment like for you stepping off the plane and figuring out what you needed to do? What was going through your mind?

[Kristina] I think I was very very focused on the job at hand. How can I set up the groups we were doing? How can I set up the therapy? Initially I was the lead psychologist on the project so you know I had the admin responsibility as well. And then the everyday stuff that’s when you move anywhere, you know where do I find my vegetables, where do I- you know where do I buy my stuff, how do I get water? You know you’re just trying to set up your little home away from home, you- like lot of my friends to FaceTime me and colleagues and kind of keep me sane at times when things felt a little bit lonely. So that’s really what you do, and I was so so focused on the job, the task ahead of us, and getting to know people at the centre, just getting to know my way around a little bit, and so that’s really how- you just take it one step at a time, the things that are important to you. You know yoga mat was out, the electricity kept going off so you have to kind of find your time otherwise the circuits wouldn’t flow, and you know you have to learn all these things.

[Roksana] Of course, of course, yes you have to set yourself up as you say, your home away from home and figure out how to get goods and feed yourself and keep yourself warm and safe. Tell me about the first time that you started treating one of the victims, if you’re happy to, I’d love to know little bit about them, what happened to them and then how you were able to support them.

[Kristina] Yeah I think one of the things and if I talk in very generic terms about trauma, that is misconception we don’t actually have to or the person who’s been subjected to trauma doesn’t actually have to go into the details to be able to heal it… so what we did was talking about the symptoms that the person had, or persons, cause it was groups and individuals… so we really- I was really very very focused on symptoms just as I would do back in the UK. And it was the symptoms that we started with helping really, so people can’t sleep, they can’t breathe, they can’t- they are dissociated, and it was explaining all these things for them that what they experiencing is a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstances. They’re not going crazy because this is the worst thing for people, they think are losing their mind. They feel incredibly angry understandably because that’s part of kind of fight or flight system so a lot of it- what I started doing was psychoeducation, explaining how trauma works, drawing things… and then we started doing very basic techniques about breathing, about being in the here and now,  relaxing techniques using strong smells… people actually get so overwhelmed by their emotions and the trauma that they cut out and they can actually faint, it’s just too overwhelming for the nervous system… so we really work with calming the nervous system down. And then the next step, if people want to and are ready, I introduce a technique I think I mentioned earlier called EMDR, which is something that’s been used in the NHS.

[Roksana] What does it stand for?

[Kristina] Eye Movement Desensitising Reprocessing, so it’s a bit of a mouthful. Basically about stimulating very briefly, kind of stimulating and moving things that are traumatic events and difficult events that become stuck in the nervous system, and is very successful for doing that so… so that would be the next step, you talk to people. I’m the person saying this is the tool, and I obviously go into other tools, as well. Would you like to give it a go? And some people did, some people felt that what we were doing was enough, your working environment is not as cushy as it is at home, you know, you’re in a prefab near the camps, it’s summer, it’s incredibly hot, our air condition was not working a lot and it’s challenging, and in the winter it’s very cold. So you know you have those challenges as well but yeah, you know you just kind of make do with what you have there really.

[Roksana] So when you were treating some of these victims, and I guess with some of them you’re probably working with multiple times to help them understand the techniques, the relaxation techniques or the other EMDR techniques that you were using with them, were there moments that you could see things working? And when that happened, how did you feel?

[Kristina] Absolutely, you know it’s- you could see people actually being able to sleep, being able to function, just being more present, the load on them were a bit lighter, they reported that they got on much better with the family, they were able to go out to and buy the daily food that they the needed, and this is huge for them to be able to leave the tents and be part of society because the first thing that people often do with when they bit experienced trauma is to withdraw. And you know, we withdraw at a time when we actually need people the most, so when you see people getting- starting to connect with others again, as that’s what as humans are about (connection) and they start doing that and are starting to be able to do things that they couldn’t do before using the techniques and you know, it’s just amazing to see is just so, so gratifying and heartwarming really.

[Roksana] And knowing that you’re one of the people that’s helping them to reconnect with others again and to start mobilising into living well a normal life in those abnormal situations, that must be quite thrilling.

[Kristina] Yeah it’s a real privilege to be with someone on the journey back to- back to health, or back to feeling better, function more in their community with their families. You know just being allowed on that journey is, amazing, it’s amazing, it’s a real privilege.

[Roksana] Sounds great. So, Kristina, I’d love to know what was going on for you personally while you were out there. Not personally as in your personal life, but in your own mind, in your private thoughts, whatever, did you have any tough moments? And if you did, how did you overcome those moments?

[Kristina] So many tough moments. You know I overcame them by talking to my friends, really had amazing friends and person who I trained with to work in the very same area, friendly and supportive, and other good friends that I spoke to FaceTime on the regular basis so they were definitely my go to. I tried to do yoga everyday, that was the real how I had my little resource. We had a great little coffee shop in the area where I lived, like in the little compound and there was such a lovely people working there, just going in there, sitting in there… and we couldn’t really talk/communicate much but that really helped me as well. Treating myself to things I like, really nice coffee, just really small things. I wrote a diary, I tried to do that everyday, yeah so I think for me, I’m not really someone to keep things to myself and tend to talk to people. I think that’s the thing that kept me relatively sane, I’m saying relatively.

[Roksana] It sounds like- I mean I can completely relate to you in the sense that when I keep routine in my life, so whether that’s doing the workout, whether that’s doing my yoga, my breathing, my journaling, all of those things help no matter what situation I’m in. And I feel that they kind of ground me and if I start and end my day doing the things that make me feel grounded, I tend to be able to be in a much stronger place to overcome the challenges that I’m presented with. So I think that’s learning for our listeners right there, and connection, sharing what’s going on with people who care and can help you just kind of rationalise your thinking is important.

[Kristina] Absolutely. So, so important and routine- you know our brain loves routine and I think times when things are really difficult and challenging, all these good things that we know makes us feel good might go out of the window, and they do for me too, and I just have to say okay you know I’m noticing the signs things are going off rails here, come on Kristina just pull yourself back on again and do the things that you know helps you.

[Roksana] Kristina I’d love to ask you, what would you what would you say is your greatest achievement?

[Kristina] The enormous stubbornness I had starting long distance when I lived in Bahrain. The fact that I kind of had this dogmatic, and just like a dog with a bone I wouldn’t let go of that, I was really, so I am proud of that and you know I had so many challenges with that… so I am very very proud of that. I’m also very grateful and proud that I’ve been able to have really open and frank conversations with my 2 girls, yeah that feels very, very important to me too.

[Roksana] Family is important isn’t it? When we create the conditions as parents where we can have those open conversations with our children, I think that feels really special, that just feel like a bit of a moment of celebration.

[Kristina] Yes, yeah absolutely.

[Roksana] What took the longest to learn or accept about yourself?

[Kristina] I think that today might be a bad day, but tomorrow is a different day. And things do not stay the same, things keep changing all the time. I think that’s part of nature, it’s part of the human mind, even when things feels incredibly dark and difficult and challenging, tomorrow is another day and it will get better. And also this thing that you you know I’m not my thoughts. My thoughts will take me on some really crazy roads, and I don’t need to believe that. You know I don’t need to believe that at all what I’m thinking, and really to connect to it you know to my body rather than my thoughts and finding a place inside that feels solid and good, and knowing that things will blow over. That’s probably the thing that I really worked on and still working on. Just that when you know we never ever stop learning, you never stop learning about yourself and try to keep humble and cheery and stay curious about life, about their selves and interested to learn. I think there’s a minute you think you got it somehow- I got this lockdown- there’s a time when you think nope, you haven’t at all.

[Roksana] My final question was to ask you, if you could go back in time and whisper a little life lesson or an affirmation to the little girl in you, what would you say to her? But I think you kind of answered that already with your previous answer.

[Kristina] Yeah I think I would really tell her you know that things will be OK. That she will find her way, not anyone else’s, but she will find her own way and that things will be OK and there is nothing wrong with her. I think those are the messages I would tell her.

[Roksana] There is nothing wrong with her. That’s really powerful. That’s beautiful. She is as she’s meant to be. Kristina I have loved our conversation. You are a powerhouse. I mean you do so much and you live bravely and courageously and I salute you for that and I only do things that you’re underplaying what you’ve been doing quite a bit. I think it’s enormous and huge and I know that it’s a privilege for you to be able to go and support people who are the victims of war, but I still think that you are an amazing person for feeling compelled to want to go and contribute and make a difference in people’s lives, and I thank you.

[Kristina] Thank you. Thank you for doing this, I think it’s- and I hope it can help and inspire other people too and I think it’s amazing that that you’re doing that because I think we all need this encouragement for different times in our lives.

[Roksana] Absolutely, I think for all my listeners listening in today, anybody who’s wondering whether or not they should do that thing that they’ve been thinking about for the longest time, whether it’s a career change or relationship change, any other change in their life… I think that if the niggling thoughts are there, then really just sit with them, listen to them and you’ll figure it out. There’ll be a way forward and I think that Kristina’s story today really inspires me to think- to think more bravely about how I’m living my life, and to really kind of start thinking about how I want to contribute. I think about how I want to contribute to actually start doing more, and taking those actions and moving forward. I think giving is living and that’s when we can feel the most contentment and peace in our hearts, knowing that we have a life of purpose and of service.

[Kristina] Yeah absolutely. I just- if I may just add a thing, you know we can do so much to help people. We don’t have to kind of travel off to the other side of the world but you know just smiling at someone, just a kind word and encouragement, that can be just as powerful.

[Roksana] Absolutely, absolutely. I think we’ve all got the ability to contribute in many many many ways and as you say can just start with a smile. It can just be an act of kindness of any size, really. But you know your story is- I did say it’s ambitious, that you are an ambitious and courageous and brave lady and I think that I still stand by. Thank you Kristina.

[Kristina] Thank you very much , lovely to speak to you.

[Roksana] Likewise.