Cultivating Resilience in the Garden of the Mind

Thank you Wikimedia and Adobe Photoshop
My evolving understanding of stress, trauma, and resiliency through reading, combat, and community development.

My understanding of psychological stress, trauma, and mental resilience has evolved over the years. I was first exposed to the notion of psychological trauma in books and movies. As a Marine, I experienced stress and trauma first hand during my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and observed how the military’s perspective on combat stress changed. Now in my current work conducting community development overseas in Africa for a non-profit organization, I see the critical importance of building mental resiliency both in our field staff as well as in the local communities that we work with. An appreciation of resiliency is vital to the health of an individual, community, business, or organization. Resiliency habits can and should be integrated into all facets of individual and organizational behavior in order to preserve what is most essential: the human mind.

I watched The Red Badge of Courage in 6th grade and still remember when my teacher said the soldier wandering listlessly after a battle had “shellshock.” In college, I was lucky enough to happen upon Colonel Hackworth’s book, About Face, where he referenced fellow soldiers in the Korean War and Vietnam War who mentally shut down because “their cup had filled over” due to prolonged combat stress. In my early years as a lieutenant, I read examples of trauma and stress in Acts of War: Behavior of Men in Battle by Richard Holmes, A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge, and Achilles in Vietnam by Dr. Jonathan Shay. These books candidly portrayed the human factors of combat that were often glossed over in the glorious accounts of other war books. These authors highlighted a hidden side to war that did not often filter to the surface of common media.

Despite reading these books, I was still unprepared for my first experience in dealing with combat stress. During the ground invasion of Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom I, my unit was involved in several small skirmishes in the battle of Nasiriyah. Several days later, one of my Marines had a mental breakdown and was removed off the front lines to be sent back to the rear. Of course at the time, even if we didn’t say it, we all thought he was a coward. Throughout my first ten years in the Marine Corps, anyone who saw the shrink was immediately deemed weak and seen as shirking duty. While never official policy, this was the common view. This negative connotation with mental trauma was extremely harmful. The seeds for a generation’s worth Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cases were already being sown in the first weeks of the war. Over the years, the numerous cases of suicide, spousal abuse, and alcoholism all indicated that the stress of countless deployments was taking a toll. However, facts, figures, and statistics never resonated with me. I had to experience a wake-up call to truly feel empathy for the effects combat stress could have on a person.

I “hit the wall” twice. I have no other description for it, because that’s exactly what it felt like. Others had different experiences, but for me, I came to an almost complete stop in my ability to do any work whatsoever. The first occurrence happened after Operation Iraqi Freedom II. It was about a month after deployment, and I was going 100mph when all of a sudden everything just stopped. I couldn’t work. Tasks that used to take me an hour to complete would take me a week or longer. I was in a daze. I have no idea how I recovered, because I didn’t do anything special. I kept plugging away, and my energy eventually returned. I don’t think what I did was healthy by any means, but I didn’t know any better. The second time happened much later while on deployment in Afghanistan. It was worse this time and was compounded by the self-guilt I inflicted on myself for being “lazy” and holding up the unit’s performance. I barely made it through the last 2 months of that tour. I talked to my peers later, and they said they didn’t notice anything. Whether it wasn’t as bad as I thought or I had a great team that covered for me is still up to debate. Regardless, I was smoked. Upon my return, I was moved into a position of higher responsibility with an even higher workload. I didn’t even want to wake up in the morning let alone come into the office. That “episode” lasted almost a year. The most severe effects went away on the following deployment to Afghanistan. Again, I have no idea how I recovered, because I didn’t formally follow any treatment procedures, although I should have. I’m sure I still have residual effects to this day. My self-recovery is not complete, and I definitely don’t recommend my method of ignoring the problem to anyone.

After 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military thankfully matured. The military evolved through the years of combat to have a healthier appreciation for the psychological cost of war. A great summation can be found in Sebastian Junger’s Vanity Fair article discussing the importance of community in healing or preventing PTSD from settling in. Data indicates that a community is helpful in treating several psychological afflictions ranging from trauma to addiction, and it is the sudden lack of community support that hits a soldier hardest upon his or her return home. One moment you are in the desert serving with the tightest group in the world, the next you are home alone with no one who understands you. The military recognized this need and adapted. My last unit developed a Performance Resiliency program(now called Preservation of the Force and Family) which focused on enhancing psychological, spiritual, and physical health. The “Welcome Home” process was formalized through programmed check-ins with counselors, physical therapists, and chaplains. The mindset truly has changed. Whereas before one was deemed weak for seeking psychological counseling, one is now considered foolish for not seeking help.

I’ve adapted the same resiliency program to my current organization. Our employees work in remote, rural, austere locations and deal with many of the same stressors as the military without the protective comfort of training and equipment to deal with hostile threats. Overall, development and aid organizations seem to be catching up to the military’s methods of addressing stress and trauma. We’ve been fortunate to connect with an organization such as Interhealth which specializes in psychological and medical support for non-profit organizations overseas. The next stage of our resiliency efforts is to focus on the local communities and integrate resiliency features into all of our impact programs of agriculture, financial support, healthcare, and education. The people we deal with consistently face the stress of hunger, poor health, debt, and fear of armed groups. We’ve begun collaborating with organizations such as the United States Institute of Peace (which I didn’t even know about while in the military) which counts pioneers such as Nina Sughrue among its ranks. Her trauma-sensitive programming methods will be a critical guide to our future community resiliency efforts in fragile conflict states.

My experiences taught me valuable lessons that I hold true to this day:

  • I didn’t see the wall either time. One second, I was going a mile a minute. The next, I felt buried alive.
  • Physical training helped me. Activity helped prevent the stress effects from settling in the brain and becoming permanent neural connections.
  • Having friends to talk with helped. It turned out that a lot of my friends were going through similarly rough times.
  • The experience of hitting the wall is not one I wish on anyone. I currently keep an open eye on the mental wear and tear of everyone in my company to ensure it never happens to anyone else.
  • Resiliency is essential to personal health and ultimately organizational health. If people in your organization are not actively addressing their personal stress symptoms, it will have a severely corrosive effect on individual health, family health, and organizational performance.
  • Acknowledging trauma and being intentional about improving resiliency is critical in dealing with stress of all forms, from low-grade daily stress to high-grade traumatic events.
  • Destigmatizing the negative connotation associated with mental health issues and treatment is accomplished by leaders understanding and promoting health and wellness programs.
  • Being resilient means being humble. Accepting the injury is the first and often the hardest step. Navigating through recovery requires a personal balance of solitude and communal support.
  • The best steps for prevention are through education. Stress affects mental and physical health and is exhibited through a variety of symptoms. Understanding its effects beforehand is key to addressing the problem early.
  • While the concept of a mental injury is frightening, it’s comforting to know that it can be treated and can heal much like a physical injury. I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Heidi Kraft in person. She explained the concept best; “if you sprain an ankle, you ice it and rest it. A brain injury should be treated the same way. Running on a sprained ankle only makes it worse. Same with the brain.”

Resiliency is a form of cultivation of the brain. Devoting time to building strong resiliency habits will ensure the garden of the mind is not choked out by the weeds of despair. It takes effort, but far less to preserve than to recover. I’m thankful for my mental scars. They are a reminder to share my experiences and help others on their path to recovery. Thanks to those who directly and indirectly helped me along the way. I’ll do my best to pay it forward.