In a series of interviews with veterans, Der-Martirosian and colleagues (2019) found that veterans viewed their own training and background as appropriate preparation for disaster relief efforts, with a focus on their sense of self-sufficiency, action-orientation, flexibility, and ability to stay calm during times of crisis. Data demonstrating that there were no significant post-9/11 increases in mental health usage at New York City VA PTSD clinics also underscores veterans’ psychological resilience in the face of national crises (Rosenheck & Fontana, 2003). Below, we outline several factors integral to the experience of veterans that may contribute to service members’ enhanced capacity to cope with COVID-19.
Unity towards a common mission. This may be the first time that many post-9/11 veterans have felt unified with their civilian counterparts on a mission. Military units also experience increased resilience when experiencing a serious threat together. Perhaps the threat of the pandemic is serving to bridge the military-civilian divide; the task of responding to this crisis also serves as a mission that may provide a sense of purpose. Both a drastic lack of mission or purpose and isolation from one’s military support system are cited by veterans as a primary driver of dissatisfaction following discharge from the military. Veterans are accustomed to putting others and the mission before the self. In response to COVID-19, there has been widespread recognition of the challenge of self-quarantining on individual mental health. As American civilians, we are not often trained to put the collective good above our own personal freedom or happiness. For a veteran, this noble mindset is a condition of their service – following orders and experiencing discomfort in the service of the greater good is an essential value.
Training to cope with crisis. Veterans and active duty service members have undergone extensive training to survive in life threatening situations. In civilian life, these skills often go unused and may not be appreciated or reinforced at home. Now, in response to the pandemic, a veteran’s disaster preparedness and survival skills are a unique strength that can provide a needed sense of safety and self-efficacy. During times of relative national and global stability, these abilities are not often put to the test in such an obvious way – this is a time for veterans to put their training in flexibility and proactive problem-solving skills to good use.
Ability to Adapt to adversity. Service members often endure long periods of time isolated from others, whether they are serving an overnight guard shift at an embassy or embarking on a long overseas deployment away from their loved ones. Long stretches of waiting for their next mission or task to be delivered by a commanding officer makes boredom a frequent byproduct. Sailors have shared the strategies developed when at sea for long periods of time, now serving them well during days spent at home. Others have shared using “deployment-mind,” which often revolved around an active mindset focused on purely getting through the day, then week, then month. Many veterans, thus, to some degree appear to be well-prepared to cope with the experience of social isolation during a time of heightened stress – something that is new to many civilians.
Avoidance. Some veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized by symptoms of avoidance, hypervigilance, re-experiencing, and negative affect. Avoiding reminders of a traumatic event can lead to unhelpful consequences in civilian life (as one’s life becomes very limited). Not only are reminders of trauma more easily avoided during a time when we are all instructed to stay at home, but a well-developed ability to consciously turn away from stressful triggers (when utilized as temporary distraction, as opposed to habitual ongoing avoidance of emotion) may actually be helpful over short periods of time as a means of reducing distress.
Hypervigilance. Hypervigilance involves constantly scanning the environment for a threat. An essential skill in combat, but exhausting to maintain in civilian life, where it is for the most part unnecessary. It is incredibly challenging to cope with the chronic overdrive of one’s nervous system that comes along with hypervigilance without a specific, serious threat to respond to. However, hypervigilance in the current climate can be directed towards very real, tangible responses to keep oneself safe – keeping masks on, hands washed, and others six feet away.
These are merely hypotheses regarding some of the drivers of the inspiring resilience being shown by some of our nation’s veterans and research must be conducted to determine the validity of these ideas. However, in the absence of this confirmation, anecdotal evidence suggests that perhaps we could all benefit from learning from the veterans in our lives that it is essential to follow the rules to protect ourselves and others, that this mission will end and we will return to some semblance of normalcy at some point, and that we can do this together when we approach this pandemic as a shared mission.
By Amanda Spray, PhD and Emily Brackman, PhD
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series authored by Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center at NYU Langone Health clinicians. Part one ran last week.
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