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Developing mental toughness

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jeffrey J. Freeland
  • 22nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander
The Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force has invested millions of dollars and manpower hours into preparing warriors for the stress and mental fatigue of deployment.

The Air Force uses a program called Landing Gear to help Airman understand and cope with the mental and physical strains of stress in combat situations. These are preventative efforts designed to prevent long term mental health issues like post traumatic stress disorder. However, it doesn't take a war to be exposed to high stress and traumatic situations. Everyday life in the Air Force can be a recurrent source of stress. Traumatic events like motor vehicle accidents, major injury or illness, and loss of a loved one are much more common in the lives of Airman then combat.

As many as 4.7 percent of warriors returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom have reported one or more PTSD symptom and 1 percent are later diagnosed with PTSD. The national prevalence of PTSD is 8 percent -- among trauma victims it can be as high as 20 to 30 percent. As Airmen, we can use many of the same preventative mental techniques used to training modern warriors to deal with the high paced stress of combat to deal with every day stress and trauma of life and develop a long term "mental toughness."

Mental toughness is a process of dealing with stress that helps minimize its impact in our lives and prevent emotional events from progressing to physical disease. Those with mental toughness recognize that stress will cause physical and mental symptoms, but these symptoms are recognized as a normal part of the stress response and healthy coping mechanisms are deployed to minimize their long term impact. Mental toughness does not mean we don't cry, feel sad, anxious, or inadequate; it does mean that we learn to cope with these feelings and move on. All Airmen must be able to recognize the signs of stress and know when to seek help.

The first step to achieve mental toughness is good general health and nutrition. Dealing with stress is exponentially more difficult if we are not physically fit, achieving adequate sleep or maintaining a healthy diet. When we regularly stress our bodies physically during exercise, we are better able to deal with unexpected physical and emotional trauma. Sleep deprivation significantly lowers our mental and emotional defenses against stress.

The second step to build mental toughness is pre-exposure preparation. Adversity is part of life; we know stressful events are going to happen. Running mental exercises on how we would respond to potential life changing disasters helps prepare our minds to deal with adversity.
  • How would you respond if you were in a motor vehicle accident or natural disaster?
  • How will you deal with the death of a love one?
  • Do you have a plan to deal with a prolonged illness or disability?
  • How will I deal with any unforeseen setback or rebuke in my professional career?
  • What would I do if I lost my job? How would I cope emotionally, physically, spiritually?
These types of mental exercises are not pleasant, but give us a preview of the emotional and physical responses we may need to endure in a crisis and allow us to prepare to meet these challenges before crisis develops. Pre-exposure preparation will not prevent stress and emotional pain, but it will help us better adapt and cope with situations with agility and less long term impact.

Third, avoid falling into the trap of "victim mentality." Always blaming others for your misfortune is a poor coping mechanism. Feelings of victimhood lead you to ignore areas where you have control or responsibility. Victim mentality focuses on self pity and not solutions. Be willing to accept responsibility. Focus on what you can control. Avoid feelings that suggest that someone else is to blame. Taking responsibility for your life builds self confidence, self reliance, and mental toughness.

Fourth, know the typical reactions to stress and emotional trauma. When people are exposed to high stress they often exhibit symptoms that are normal and helpful in dealing with crisis, but if these symptoms persist or are not addressed, they can progress into prolonged mental and physical manifestations. Stress isn't always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you're constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price. Normal responses to stress include anxiety, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, sweating, hyper-alertness, mild nausea, light headedness. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus - preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. If stress coping mechanisms are poor these symptoms can progress into chronic irritability, digestive problems, poor concentration, sleep disorders, chest pain, eating disorders, hypertension, depression and PTSD. Stress can also make it difficult for us to deal with pain issues.

Poor stress coping mechanisms include procrastination, over eating, smoking, blaming others, withdrawal, anger and nail biting. Good coping mechanisms include learning to set limits and say "no" when appropriate, channeling energy toward hobbies or exercise, developing relaxation techniques, helping others and volunteering, calling a friend, and going for a walk.

Fifth, being mentally tough does not mean you do not seek help, but rather that you have the self confidence to ask for help when needed. There are several on-base agencies which can provide help:
  1. Mental Health Clinic
  2. Stress reduction classes
  3. Chaplain
  4. Co-workers, wingmen
  5. Airmen and Family Readiness
  6. Physician
  7. Commanders, first sergeants
  8. Legal, Finance, Security Forces services
Things that influence your stress tolerance level:
  • Your support network - A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life's stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
  • Your sense of control - If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it's easier to take stress in stride. People who are vulnerable to stress tend to feel like things are out of their control.
  • Your attitude and outlook - Stress-hardy people have an optimistic attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, accept that change is a part of life, and believe in a higher power or purpose.
  • Your ability to deal with your emotions - You're extremely vulnerable to stress if you don't know how to calm and soothe yourself when you're feeling sad, angry, or afraid. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity.
  • Your knowledge and preparation - The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.
Learn to develop your mental toughness. Combat is not the only source of stress in an Airman's career. Developing a comprehensive approach is your best defense. Am I in control or is stress controlling me? Know the resources that can help you deal with stress and have the courage to use them.