The other day, one of my buddies from the military came over to my place to chat with my husband and I, who are both veterans of the Canadian Forces. He was really distraught and after a couple of minutes of pacing around, he broke down to tell us that his unit was medically releasing him, because he was diagnosed with depression and PTSD on the Operational Stress Injury tests. He was devastated, angry and incoherent, partially because after 20 years of service and 3 tours of duty to Afghanistan, he has no idea how to function or work in the civilian world, and he has no idea how to deal with depression and PTSD, now that it is diagnosed. After his visit, I was reminded of the devastating effects of trauma on the body and the brain, both short and long-term effects of being exposed to life-threatening situations and seeing tragic events, can really mess a person up. But what of it?
In today’s modern society, trauma is a word you hear thrown around like confetti. But what is trauma? When you look at the human body on the cellular or systemic level, all parts are functioning together with one goal in mind: keep this human alive. As a result, when we are faced with a life-threating situation, our bodies come built-in with a neat “fight or flight” setting that functions to orient our body for confronting or escaping from a life threatening stimulus. Symptoms include dry mouth (digestion of that burger from last night can wait till the threat has been dealt with), sweating (in anticipation of the increased body heat from physical exertion of engaging the enemy or running away), pale skin (as blood drains from skin surface and redirected to muscles in order to prepare for physical exertion), and dilated pupils (to increase visual acuity for target detection).
As helpful as these altered bodily functions can be in say a combat situation, prolonged exposure to situations that keep your body in a state of “fight or flight” is harmful to the body; tissues inflame, sugar cannot be digested by the cells and over time, the body starts to shut down, resulting in a permanent state of depression both physical and mental, and a poor quality of life. For example, soldiers that deploy over seas, are in a constant state of “hyper” awareness, and adrenalin is constantly floating around in the body making sure the heart is beating fast and digestion is slowing down or shut off completely, just in case you need to GTFO.
In effect, this constant state of hyperawareness is a normal response to a very abnormal situation – our brains did not evolve for exposure to long term stress. The fight or flight setting was always meant to be activated in short bursts; because it evolved during a time where the biggest threat to life was wildlife and a stressful encounter lasted a few hours at most. But when a person’s career depends on staying in that state for weeks, months, or even years at a time, it can create problems for the mind and the body.
Over exposure to molecules such as adrenalin, which informs your body that you are in a state of fight or flight can over-ride all your other systems, so now your body has settled in a new state of hyper-awareness, and this is now your normal functioning state! It is like the brain of a deployed soldier stays stuck on that fight or flight setting, even in the safety of their own home, long after the threat to life has been eliminated. But maintenance of normal body functions cannot occur in a state of flux, where there is too much trauma in the mind and the physical body is deteriorating.
So how do we build resilience against trauma? Our species has evolved for so many centuries through many traumatic events, and even though some believe that trauma at the molecular level is embedded in our DNA, our bodies are much stronger and capable of so much more than we know. The human brain, which manages the different systems and functions of the body and regulates digestion, sleep, sexual drive and other animal needs, is also equipped with the ability to change! Soldiers go through a couple of months of training and they are completely different people before and after a course, because their brains have created new networks to represent the new tasks they have learned, for example how to march and do drill. Just like the physical act of drill can be “drilled in” to someone’s head, tools of resilience that allow us to notice our mental state of functioning can also be learned. This is the art of mindfulness.
Mindfulness literally translates to being present with the internal states we feel, emotions, sensations, and thought right here and right now. How does it work? Being mindful means you can focus to notice your thoughts, what are your go-to thoughts, how do you “speak” to yourself in your mind? Are you aggressive or depressive, do you judge your own actions, and those of others with disdain?
Through practice, training and patience, we can equip ourselves to notice our internal mental environment and we can train our minds to become more acute at recognizing these states that represent trauma, depression and PTSD. Just like a brand new soldier can learn drill in a few weeks/months, our mind can learn to be mindful.
Coming back to my veteran friend with the PTSD diagnosis, we listened to him and encouraged him to has reach out to his family to support his transition into the civilian world. He has done that and he is now considering different ways that he can utilize his many valuable skills in the civilian workforce. We have had many conversations about how reaching out was the biggest, most challenging step for him, because as soldiers, we are trained to operate in a “one man-one gun” paradigm. But the “real world” is filled with other people, some related to you who can help by creating a safe and nourishing environment, where you can practice your tools of resilience and mindfulness. And when family members can’t understand or satisfy the needs you have, then reach out for assistance, talk to someone, ask for help. We are stronger together as a community than each of us suffering in solitude. Let’s use our courage to confront our suffering, together. It is normal to feel apathetic, to feel out of place, to feel hyper vigilant and anxious after going through months, maybe even years of “fight or flight” being our brain’s default mode of operation. We needed it to do our jobs. We needed it to stay alive. But things don’t have to stay that way. In the practice of mindfulness, you will come to a realization, that change is constant and suffering is optional. Let’s learn how to opt out.