I was sitting in my 2nd-period class when 9/11 occurred. Another student was sitting in the corner, on a computer that was old even then for that time period, when the news started to reverberate. At first, we thought it was a bombing of the World Trade Center, then it became what we now know it to be. In this pre-smartphone era, we tuned into the news, glued to the television for hours on end. We were taken aback by what happened, and waiting for that next dopamine spike that new information would send our way.
That’s the thing about the worldwide crises that most of us have faced; they’ve been acute. Something horrific happens, we panic, we are glued to the news cycle, and then it slowly, gradually fades. There’s something we can rally against, and a plan to return to a semblance of normalcy can quickly ensue. While the stress of 9/11 may have lasted for days and, for some, years, afterward, we were able to come down.
Uncertainty and lack of control amplify stress. When we can’t see an end, when we feel helpless, the negative symptoms and sensations that accompany stress are amplified. Unlike when facing calamities like 9/11, with our current situation of COVID-19, if we look into the future, we don’t see the NY Yankees returning to the field, or life-resuming course. Instead, we’re faced with a long road of uncertainty, of unknowns. A fear that things might get a lot worse before they start to get better.
It’s a different sort of challenge. One where we’re in it for the long haul, where the same strategies and tactics we use to get through acute stress might not work—just as the same tricks to cope with getting through a 400-meter dash don’t work if the race is a marathon.
In training elite soldiers in the military, we often hear about the extreme training that they perform to get ready for battle, the demanding physical workouts and tests, such as the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training that soldiers have to go through. This is a simulation that involves getting dumped into the wilderness and told to survive, before ultimately getting captured and going through a realistic POW experience. This type of training relies on a concept called stress inoculation. That if we ‘vaccinate’ someone to extreme stress, they’ll be able to handle it better in the future.
But there’s another aspect to military preparation for stress, the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF). This is a program designed to “maximize [a soldier’s] potential and face the physical and psychological challenges of sustained operations.”
Sustained is the keyword there. If survival style training is a vaccine, then CSF is like maintaining a healthy and robust immune system. It focuses on developing resilience and skills to cope over the long haul. Similarly, armies around that world have adopted a “strength-based” approach to psychological development. Such an approach teaches the basics of well-being and mental health, including: learned optimism, resilience, post-traumatic growth, emotion regulation, and positive affect. The goal is to develop skills that help handle not only the specific stresses on the battlefield but the stressors that hit us in everyday life, and the lasting effects of a traumatic event (which many do still experience from 9/11)/
When we face the stress of life, we’re really good at recognizing and developing the skills to take on the short term crisis. We know how to cope, to get through it, to see the other side. We’re not as well equipped for the long haul. When facing so much uncertainty, I’d encourage readers to shift to a long-haul mindset and making their mental and physical health a priority.
Fall back on the basics, the simple things you can do to keep your physical and mental health in top shape. And remember the large role that connection and support plays in getting through difficulty.