New Zealand Chief of Army Writing Competition Winner for the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Category June 2020
By Mrs. A.K Blackman.
Resilience – it conjures up images of a stoic figure, refusing to be beaten. Picking herself up from numerous knock downs, calm in the face of danger, never giving up. It’s inspiring and forms the climax of the plot of many great stories and movies. I want to offer you my definition of Resilience as it affects soldier today.
‘Being able to process what is going through your head and still make good choices when everything is against you’, and this skill is vital. I would venture as far as to say that it is the most important skill for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), and we should be training it at least as hard as we train our trade and physical skills.
The rolling stone effect of improving resilience encompasses improved discipline, effort and decision making, while decreasing the use of harmful coping mechanisms including alcohol and drugs. It will give our troops the ability to process adverse things that happen in their space and make them more empathetic and more emotionally intelligent.
Resilience is a fascinating topic. Why is it that some people can push themselves past pain and suffering to achieve unimaginable feats, and others cannot even muster the effort required to get up from the couch and go for a walk? How could people survive the horrors of the Holocaust? How does a pilot get shot down and spend weeks at sea in a life raft? There are numerous examples of people who display an uncommon level of resilience. I still get lost for hours reading books by special forces soldiers and ultra-marathon runners. I love to imagine being able to do what they are doing and push myself to places that were thought impossible.
I think of times in my life where I have built resilience through suffering and refusing to give up. There were also times when I didn’t show any resilience at all, quitting at the first sign of discomfort. The development of resilience isn’t necessarily linear. You can bounce back and forth, displaying it in some areas and not in others and a lot of that, I believe has to do with training.
In certain areas of life we are trained to be resilient. Physical Training (PT) and sports are probably the most common arenas we train resilience today. We are taught from a young age not to give up. To get back up, dust ourselves off and try again. We give up sometimes, and then we learn that we have to live with the fact that we didn’t carry on. There was more in us, we knew that, once the pain of the moment had faded away and we were lying in bed thinking about the fact that we could have continued on. So we learn that we don’t like the feeling of leaving something on the table, and we learn not to quit.
How can it be that soldiers who are extremely physically resilient can come home and suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why do soldiers who make excellent decisions under pressure at work choose to use recreational drugs that they know will mean being discharged from the military if they are caught? Resilience built and trained in solely one arena doesn’t necessarily translate automatically to other areas of life.
Why does reliance appear to be lacking?
‘They have gone soft’ – a constant lament of generations past commenting on the youth of today. In a sense they are correct, in general we are softer than our predecessors. Imagine your great grandparents and your grandparents and the life they had compared with yours. Technology has allowed us to streamline many of life’s previously time consuming and physically difficult chores and achieve more, faster than ever before. Expectations for achievement are much greater given the tools we have today. Life 50-100 years ago was slower, harder, colder and in general much more brutal than today.
We view the world through a bigger, brighter and wider lens and with that comes a different type of stress. Terrorist activities, natural disasters and climate change are just a few examples of stress inducing things that are broadcast into our lives via the news and social media every hour of every day. Those who came before us had the stress of their own lives. We are exposed to the stress of the whole world.
Why do we seem to find it more difficult to manage when statistically, we live in the safest, happiest, most productive time in history? I have a theory borne of my own experience which has been accurately summed up below.
‘Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.’ – G. Michael Hopf
My childhood could be described very comfortable. I had everything a kid could ever want. My parents worked extremely hard to come from nothing and they wanted their children to have everything they missed out on growing up. Not to say that life was always easy. We moved over 20 times before I turned 15, including 4 times internationally.
When life is very comfortable ‘weak men’ are created, but the men in this scenario are only weak because they haven’t had to overcome the many difficulties experienced by the ‘strong men’ living in the ‘hard times’.
When I joined the Army in 2006 things began to change. As a child and teenager I excelled at almost everything I tried. I enjoyed, and came to rely on, the praise I received for the different things I achieved (but that is another essay topic entirely). Once in the Army, I quickly learned that praise was something you had to be able to give yourself. There was a distinct lack of external praise, but you certainly knew about it if you performed poorly.
I learned to internalise the feedback process so that I wasn’t left feeling unsatisfied if no one acknowledged my efforts.
The youth of today are not fundamentally different. They are a product of their environments, just as generations before were a product of theirs. They don’t need to harden up, they need to learn how to process their thoughts and emotions so they can deal with them instead of bottling them up. Training them on mental resilience techniques will give them the skills they need to do that.
Progress, not perfection
Failure gives us the opportunity to display resilience. Especially if the failure comes off the back of enormous emotional investment to the task. The more invested we are, the harder it will be to reconcile our disappointment in not being successful. These are the best times to take stock and use what we have in our resilience tool boxes to reset for our next attempt.
I came across a fantastic quote last year – ‘progress, not perfection’. We want to get into this mindset, because when the expectation is perfection the likely outcome is failure. If failure is imperative when building resilience you would assume that this is exactly where we want to be, but when the standards are set so high that they are nearly impossible to attain it is easy for people to lose enthusiasm for the task and give up completely.
A good example of this is quitting smoking. If the person has a ‘slip-up’ and has a cigarette the temptation can be to give up with the attempt to quit. After all you have failed so why should you continue? You have already ruined it. When we reframe our expectations so that we see improvement as success, we can build on the small successes until we have achieved what we set out to do.
No one wants to fail. Despite the motivational quotes that tell us we need to fail, if only to give us another chance to get back up and keep trying. Human beings are averse to feeling uncomfortable and failure makes us feel that way, but we learn the most through our failures. It gives us a chance to do an autopsy and assess what could be improved on.
This focus should be extended to emotional failures as well. If we are trying to improve our communication, for example, then it isn’t a case of communicate perfectly or absolute failure. Any improvement must be seen as a win to build on.
We must train for emotional resilience
In February 2019 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. It didn’t hurt much. I could take the physical pain of surgery and endless needles for the scans and tests I had to undergo, but my soul felt broken. As I progressed through treatment and became less able physically I began to feel useless. I wasn’t working as much and it upset me that I wasn’t contributing to the household like I had before.
To cut a long story short I began to play poker online. I’m not bad at poker in real life, and even on the days I felt the worst after chemotherapy I was able to sit on the couch and play on the computer. In my head I know how to weigh up odds, and decide which hands I should fold – it isn’t rocket science. I found myself just throwing money away. My usual coping mechanism, which I think I shared with much of the nation was alcohol. When you don’t want to deal with feeling a certain way alcohol will numb you and take you outside of yourself. A temporary escape. You aren’t supposed to drink alcohol during chemotherapy, it makes it less effective. So I was sober, during one of the most stressful periods of my life, without the physical activity I usually enjoyed to let off steam and keep me balanced. Playing poker online was a way for me to lose myself and not have to think about how I was feeling about what I was experiencing.
Fortunately I realised what was happening and sought help before things got out of hand. I now have better mechanisms in place to help me when I feel overwhelmed.
Why is emotional resilience important?
You don’t need to be diagnosed with cancer to benefit from improved emotional resilience. Experiencing traumatic things or having any chronic condition or injury can cause people to feel angry, scared, sad, trapped, anxious and depressed. I have experienced this myself and witnessed the change in soldiers who have a long term injury. Feeling unable to contribute to work as normal. Afraid to be labelled lazy or malingering. Often without sports or the gym to let off steam. We are leaving these soldiers without the tools and training to get themselves through. I know when I tore two discs in my back, unable to play sports or go on exercise or course or deploy I became pretty sad. Without the ability to do anything physical I drank in my barrack room most evenings. I doubt I’m the only one.
With emotional resilience we can learn to bounce back from emotional disappointments just as we bounce back from physical challenges at PT. Once emotional resilience is developed and honed discipline is improved. You have the fortitude to do what needs to be done before doing what you want to be doing, and all of your decision making improves.
Taking the easy or comfortable option is generally forefront in the mind. This sways your decision making process as your mind looks for these options, providing short term enjoyment/comfort instead of weighing the longer term options and making decisions aligned with higher overall goals and intents. Just this benefit in itself develops a better soldier. Troops who can make decisions in line with an overarching intent will make better choices without having to be micromanaged.
Perhaps the most important thing that developing emotional resilience will give you is at the core of its definition – being able to recover quickly from difficulties. When life throws the kitchen sink at you, resilience will give you the confidence to cope. Instead of turning to drugs, alcohol, gambling or other undesirable hobbies to numb the senses you will have the tools and ability to seek help, and debrief your experiences in a way that you can grow from it.
What can I do to improve?
The single most effective and actionable this you can do to improve your resilience is breathwork. Breathing is the quickest way to calm ourselves. There are breathing patterns that when done for anywhere from 30 seconds upwards can reset our systems. Taking conscious control of your breathing allows you to control your mind and your mood eliminating the need to numb the feelings and leaving you calm enough to figure out how to deal with them.
In October last year I was told that my cancer had spread and that it was now ‘incurable’. A test of my newly developing resilience was here, and I felt like I hadn’t even had time to practise. I have many breathing patterns that I use to calm myself when I feel off centre. Breathing in for a count of three, pause and hold for one, and breathing out for a count of six is my favourite. If you do this for 2 minutes you will certainly feel it’s effects. If you do it for 5 minutes you will be so calm you will almost be asleep.
You can journal to get thoughts out of your head and on paper. Instead of being stuck in a loop of doom in your mind as you lie awake in bed at night, write your thoughts down. Once you have gotten them out of your head try the deep breathing exercise above and you will be able to relax properly.
I use both of these techniques every day, more than once per day and if they help me they can help you.
Training and testing your progress
How can you tell if you have become more resilient? We have discussed how vital a skill it is but we need ways to develop it. Think of every skill you have been taught since you enlisted. You are shown how to do it, provided an opportunity to practise and then tested. Resilience is no different. PT is a quick and easy way to put enormous amounts of stress on an individual and give them the chance to ‘push through’ and ‘never give up’ and display all of those hero qualities.
Basically, it boils down to this – you must do things you don’t want to do, but that are beneficial to you. Daily, at the very least. An easy one to start with is a cold shower. Who wants to have a cold shower? In New Zealand probably not even in the summer, save for perhaps the hottest days. This simple act if completed every day will lay the foundation for building resilience. You are getting used to being uncomfortable, and that is a good thing. Eventually your mind will accept that discomfort is not that bad and it will become easier to do.
Make space in your routine for new habits such as breathwork, journaling, yoga and communicating with your partner and close friends. If you break down your day you would be surprised how much time you waste scrolling on your phone. Why not put the effort into something that will improve your life?
Unexpected changes to an otherwise familiar task can give people the chance to develop resilience. Have your team perform a task and part way through change the goal posts, or alter the information you gave them at the beginning so that they have to start some part over.
During the training, remind your team to use the breathing patterns they have been taught to centre themselves before embarking on a new course of action. Make sure that you have the ability to facilitate them through any difficulties they may be having with the techniques. It’s no different to helping them get there weapons drills correct.
Never ending evolution
Resilience is not a destination. There is no optimum level to attain and then sit back and relax because you have enough. This is a never ending evolution. It is a commitment to a better life. Just as you choose to go to the gym and work on your physical resilience you need to make the choice to work on mental resilience. The more resilience you cultivate, the more you will find you are able to push through all sorts of different difficulties. Try to challenge yourself to develop and build resilience in different facets of your life. Make time in your training schedule to train your troops on mental resilience and watch them improve in all aspects of their careers and lives.
Enjoy the upward spiral.