Military life has a way of haunting you even after you’ve hung up or packed away all the uniforms and gear. Memories, smells, sounds, a flash of light, a cracking sound, or the unmistakable sound of a Blackhawk flying overhead even the smell of diesel fuel will drag you back to the most stressful and anxious moments. It’s not all about combat. It can just as well be from non-combat events. Responding to emergencies, law enforcement, fire response, natural disaster operations, even intense training environments; especially when things don’t quite go according to plan, can leave long lasting memories buried deep inside you. You find yourself ready to react, to what – it doesn’t matter; you’re ready and anxious.
They called it being hyper-vigilant. That sensation that overwhelms you when something that grabs one or more of your five senses, and for a moment or two, carries you back to that point in your past when, well, things might have been a bit intense or left you with regrets, shook your confidence, made you afraid or at least nervous.
They called it PTSD. That nasty acronym with negative connotations: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and affects many veterans and current service members, as well as any first responder for that matter (police, firefighter, emergency services, emergency room doctors and nurses, technicians and similar folks). It is even being used as a label for the mental trauma condition that remains behind for victims of sexual assault (and rightly so).
The two go together: Hyper-Vigilance and PTSD. Sensations awaken other sensations that, in turn, awaken emotions that frankly we would rather keep suppressed. We are not talking being an adrenaline junkie; someone who desires that excitement and the adrenaline high that comes with it. Yes, Hyper-Vigilance and PTSD come with their own adrenaline kick; just not one we want to relive over and over again.
One of the first things the veterans counselor taught me when I finally sought help was to meditate to “let go.” It really does not matter whether you are a veteran or not, the meditation method below can be used by anyone trying to manage stress and anxiety. Performing this simple exercise regularly can go a long way in helping you deal with those intense moments, memories, and anxiety. It can help you step down and away from the state of hyper-vigilance.
Just as with our military training we want to embed this technique into our behavior as second nature; an automatic response to stress and sensations instead of getting lost in the negative feelings that usually accompany being dragged back into those moments that drag us back to those uncomfortable or anxious moments.
Say or Think to Yourself
Scan the Body
- Breathe in and out slowly controlling the breath pace. Scan the body and the mind from top to bottom to find the stress and pain. Find the tension only – imagine it away.
- Breathe to create space. Identify the cause and put space/distance between the cause and the effect on myself. Separate myself from my pain, stress, my response to the stimulus. See myself separating from the pain and stress.
- Examine and find the cause of the stress or (as the Buddha called it – suffering) and the effect on my mind and body.
Actively Manipulate the Stress or Suffering and Dissipate It
- Analyze the cause and effect; put it in a more rational and realistic perspective.
- Find a different way to see it or view it; as in identifying the cause and its associated effect.
- Think clearly and objectively to determine: “How do I feel? What are my pains and what is the cause?
- Are the feelings or pain emotional and warranted as a result of my fault? If so, why do I believe so? Can I change it? I must re-train, re-condition my mind through meditation; practice changing my point of view, my perspective to rational think, not irrational reason.
- This perceived cause for emotional stress/pain; I must see it from the outside myself.
How can I stop my reaction and the outcome of that reaction? How will I fill the void left by stopping the stress/suffering/behavior that resulted from the cause? (This is a good time to set up a hobby outlet; something that distracts you and helps you let go. If you watch the television series NCIS, the character named Gibbs played by Mark Harmon, works with carpentry building small boats as his outlet to “let it go.”)
Say to Myself
- I can’t control everything. I’m not responsible for those things outside my control. Just let go.
- I must accept that I can’t force the choices made by others. It’s unimportant to have everyone accept me or my view.
- I am not responsible for not being there and everywhere to help, solve, save, cure, and protect anyone all of the time.
- Things will happen in spite of my efforts and outside my control.
- I can’t blame myself for negative outcomes I could not have known, foreseen, or prevented.
Release and Fill the Void
- Breathe, release the stress, and fill the void with a calm mind. Practice saying:
- Let Go. I’ve done what I can.
- I’ve done the best I can. I can’t change everything.
- How does the other person feel?
- What can I do to help myself? Let Go.
- Breathe and with each breath out, release stress and pain; replace it by fill the void with a calm mind, calm thought and clear thinking.
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You Are Not Alone
There are a lot of us out there that have been through the high stress, the high intensity, the life and death moments, the physical and mental damage, the responsibility for the lives of others, and the uncertainty of the future. A close friend of mine who retired as SWAT police officer described to me how, as a special weapons and tactics police officer they spent every day training and drilling to master tactical approaches to the variety of situation they might face and master all the weapons and hand-to-hand combat skills. The training was intense but nothing like the real thing when the SWAT team has to engage one or more bad guys in the life and death situations. It’s those real-deals that stay with you, especially when things go south and someone is hurt or dies; even if it’s the bad guy. Death is death; pain is pain and guilt is also pain. So it does not matter whether your hyper-vigilance or PTSD is military related or civilian related; it is what it is; but we can learn to deal with it; live with it on our own terms.
If you are a military veteran and you have not already applied for medical care through the VA, and you are having difficulties or want to get help, contact the local VA medical facility or go on-line to the VA(dot)gov website to file for benefits. The VA has a great mental heath care services and you can get one-on-one care and counseling. Don't be afraid or discouraged; you are not alone.
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