Choose War: Fighting Trauma
If you have experienced any type of trauma that has affected your health or performance, keep reading.
This is part 2 of my ‘How to Transform’ series.
My first brush with trauma happened in Afghanistan. In the pre-winter cool of 2007, I was on a combat mission to clear a strategically critical valley in Oruzgan province. We shivered in the dawn fog as we marked landing zones for a clearance force. Giant helicopters landed and disgorged busloads of soldiers onto the battlefield. They ran silently, squatting in ditches before the clearance started.
Two hours later, I was kneeling next to a dying soldier. We were trapped in a small aqueduct and a member of our team had been shot through the chest and badly wounded. I was keeping low to the ground since the enemy had spotted us, and were registering their displeasure with heavy weapons. It was a close battle and it was not going well.
Those opening minutes, my first in combat, were not good. I realised things would not be the same again after the sun set on that day. If my team and I survived, I knew we would have to live with some form of trauma.
I went back to work after that long deployment in Afghanistan. Something was not right – normally, I could work at high intensity for 12-16 hours a day. Now I could barely manage 12-16 minutes. Exhaustion was ever-present. I felt emotionally numb. Nothing could rouse me from a steady state of apathy. I drank heavily. I couldn’t sleep at home unless I barricaded my door shut. When I slept, which was rare, I would have nightmares. It was a pathetic existence. I was far from my best self, and getting worse.
I finally sought help.
A psychiatrist diagnosed me with moderate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression. I was not surprised. Without help, it would be a fast track to personal and career ruin. The diagnoses was a warning light on my personal health dashboard.
I visited a neuroscientist that came recommended from an Army doctor. He listened closely as I explained my experiences and symptoms. He nodded, jumped to his feet and started drawing on the whiteboard. He sketched out a picture of a brain, spinal column and detailed parts within the brain, circling a couple of them.
“This is your amygdala” he circled a small patch near the spinal column. “this is an ancient, reptilian part of your brain that controls fight or flight responses. It keeps you alive when you face danger. You have been overusing this for the last six months. So, you are more lizard than human at the moment.” I laughed. “This,” he said, pointing at the frontal lobe of the brain. “is your prefrontal cortex. This is responsible for cognitive functioning, problem solving, decision making, empathy, rational reasoning and logic. We call it the ‘CEO’ of your brain. These executive functions have been ‘benched’ since your life has been under threat. It has probably atrophied to some degree. We are going to rebuild your mind, and I’m going to show you how.” This made sense. I was relieved when I realised I was not mad.
“Don’t mind the recurring memories,” he told me. “When people experience trauma, as you have, that experience is hardwired into the brain. It is stored as a DVD-quality image, and can be recalled at any time. The quality does not degrade with time.” I was astonished. “This is useful for our species in terms of survival and evolution. It’s a reminder of what you need to avoid to stay alive. So if you do experience intrusive thoughts, you are not crazy – your brain is working as it should. Your symptoms don’t feel great, but they are designed to save your life.” I was relieved. It was the first time I felt that I was not totally mad. “You will recover, most people do. I’m going to get you started with some tips and routines I want you to follow.”
This was the first step in a long path to recovery, and it set the foundation for the habits I have today. I went on to learn about the importance of sleep, exercise, diet and meditation. I kept these habits – initially, they saved my sanity. Later, they became the foundations of high performance that I used for new endeavours. The first step in the whole process was accepting some responsibility for my health, and it was the hardest step .
If you suffer from the effects of trauma, a life saving step is accepting responsibility for own recovery. The onus is on you to be responsible for your own mental health. This is a responsibility that people sometimes unwittingly avoid. Programs, medicines and science professionals, medication and treatments, are all tools for treatment. However these tools applied in insolation, or without an integrated strategy, are unlikely to help you. Instead, it will take your complete, integrated, sustained and proactive participation to recover from trauma and mental illness. As supermodel Rachel Hunter told us in her Kiwi accent – it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
Mental illness is not uncommon in militaries and broader society:
- Nearly half (46 per cent) of veterans who left the ADF within five years experienced a mental disorder
- The most common forms of mental health issues are anxiety disorders (37%), alcohol disorders (13%), and depressive episodes (11%)
- 80% of people recover from PTSD with some assistance
“It will take your complete, integrated, sustained and proactive participation to recover from mental illness”
Mental health should not be viewed as an isolated system. It is part of a ‘system of systems’ we have in the human body. Your mental health is affected by your physical fitness, diet, rest, gut health and social environment. Recognising your mental health is one cog of many in your overall system, is critical to treating it holistically.
It’s important to tackle these issues before you leave your Defence job. If not, building a new life and career will be much more difficult. Consider this analogy: if you planned to bulldoze a home and build a new, better one in its place, you would have an existing foundation to use. If that foundation is cracked and broken, would you want to build on it? What would you say to a builder who tries to build a new house on top of a shattered foundation? It won’t last the trials and stresses of a new life, new career, new home. The foundation I am referring to is you – your values, experiences and personal health.
So what can repair that foundation?
I tackled my own recovery in seven steps:
1. “F#$k pride.” Consider your ego for moment. We all have one, and if you’re a proud professional like I am, you probably have a very healthy one. Good for you. Now go and check it at the door, you won’t need it for this next phase. Ego may prevent you from admitting you need to take control of your recovery. In the cult film, Pulp Fiction, mafia boss Marsellus Wallace, reminds another character he is partnering with: “F&*k pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.” I would never advocate taking advice from a character of this sort, but when it comes to trauma, consider invoking the ‘Marsellus Wallace Clause’. This may be a life saving step, because most other helpful actions hinge from the moment you admit to yourself that you need help.
2. Stop the bleeding. Think about what ‘business as usual’ will look like if you continue on this track. Social disconnection, substance abuse, anger issues, and a lack of productivity can lead to a spiral of separation, social estrangement, unemployment, homelessness and an early death. If this high-risk path is unattractive to you, contrast it to another: recovery, reinvention and contribution. Stop the bleeding and go a better way.
3. Get diagnosed. Request a specialist diagnose any existing illness, and then help with a recovery strategy. A GP or military doctor can immediately refer you to external support. A diagnosis of any issues that may afflict you is essential – it will guide your treatment. 54% of mental health suffers do not access any treatment, and this can complicate later diagnoses and treatment. An early diagnoses can help, so avoid missing this step.
4. Fear no stigma. Fear of being judged for having a mental illness is both imagined and real. Mental illness was not yet destigmatised during my time in the military, but it has improved dramatically. If you fear being tarred with a negative brush, push on regardless. Prioritising your health over your pride, even your employment, is not a bad idea. If you fight on without treatment, you may suffer more than just dented pride.
5. Forgive yourself. If you have ever been involved in any trauma, guilt is a very common symptom. That will pass the faster you can rationalise the events that took place. Health care professionals have tools and mindsets to help you with this. The faster you can rationalise negative events, the sooner you can use your best asset: the remaining days of your life.
6. Build a Resilience Toolkit. As I recovered, I learned about the science of positive habits. This included understanding how rest, diet, and exercise affected my mental wellbeing. The habits I learned around these pillars helped me recover, and also became the foundations of high performance
- Rest. The neuroscientist that treated me said: “I am going to give you a routine that will improve duration and quality of your sleep.” His routine took about 30 minutes. It involved stretching, concentrated breathing, making a short diary entry, showering, and sitting down to read fiction book before bed. He told me to adjust the length of the routine depending on how well I was sleeping. I still use this routine today, it’s a great investment of time – and I sleep really well. I don’t even mind if my door is unlocked. My brain began to heal. I went to the US to complete a full time MBA, and I slept nine hours a night for two years. To change everything you know about sleep, listen to this podcast on the science of sleep between Joe Rogan and sleep expert and neuroscientist Dr Matthew Walker. It’s hilarious too, if you can tolerate some swearing.
- Eat well. Improving your resistance to mental illness can be as simple as an improvement in your diet. Studies have found that “better quality diets are consistently associated with reduced depression risk.” I increased plant based foods and reduced processed foods, especially sugars. I also cut back on alcohol consumption, which helped improve sleep.
- Exercise often. Finding a routine of exercise can help “reduce the symptoms of PTSD and improves coping mechanisms” according to a recent study conducted at RAAF base Richmond, Australia. I tried Crossfit, rugby and boxing and found them all to be beneficial. My concentration and energy levels improved, and my mood also. Exercise can also link you into new support communities which is another enabler for positive mental health.
- Find a supportive community. Communities have been established to support transitioning veterans. The Younger Veterans Contemporary Needs Forum is a collection of non-profit organisations that are working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to gain a clearer picture of issues affecting younger veterans. It is a collection of organisations whose mission is dedicated to supporting young veterans and their families.
- Try proven recovery methods. There are many different types of treatment for trauma, ranging from medication, to meditation to hypnosis. I like to use methods that have a proven track record, backed up by studies. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is one such treatment that involves exposure to trauma in a controlled setting to reduce symptoms. Ask for recommendations from a health care professional for more information.
7. Execute, Recover, Reorientate, Repeat.
- Execute your daily wellness drills, repeatedly. Remember it takes on average 10 weeks to make a routine a habit. Plan time and space to recover. Reorientate yourself onto a new endeavour and find a direction that motivates you. Repeat that cycle again and again. This will be a long process that will require plenty of self discipline, but the results can help you well beyond just recovery. It can build you positive habits for a lifetime.
In the words of Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
Hiding from trauma is not a strategy. I know, I’ve tried it. In the words of Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” When it comes to dealing with trauma, tackle it front on. Fight it with sound intelligence, a clear strategy, tactics backed up by science, relentless discipline, and with no mercy.
#veterans #resilience #mentalhealth #exercise #wellness #defence #growth
*For more insight on trauma, listen to Dr Dan Pronk, former special ops doctor on the Unforgiving 60 podcast from the ~19:00 – 21:00 minute mark. Read Sebastian Junger’s outstanding Vanity Fair article for his insights on trauma and veterans reintegrating into society. It became the foundation of a book called “Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging” that should be compulsory reading for every person about to leave the service.
I wrote this article in the interest of helping to save lives, and improving quality of life for veterans, or any person suffering from trauma. If you are military, a first responder or corporate team leader, pay attention to mental health training and intervene directly if one of your peers or team members needs help.
If you or someone you know need help, please contact at Lifeline on 13 11 14
For more help, visit the Black Dog Institute’s site on trauma recovery. St Vincent’s Hospital also runs an online course on trauma recovery for a nominal cost. Reach out to you GP or military doctor for any assistance or specialist referrals.