The war on stress: resilience in the military

Final UK troops leave Helmand Province, Afghanistan in October 2014. A resilience programme is helping the military battle stress while at war and after they return to civilian life. PHOTO: Corporal Andrew Morris/MOD/REX/Shutterstock

While military personnel are known to thrive on stress in conflict, evidence is mounting of mental health problems in civilian life. The Ministry of Defence has introduced the “HeartMath” programme to maintain resilience in and out of battle.

In September 2013, the Afghan National Army Officer Academy Coalition Force Mentor Course invited an external firm to speak on how resilience to stress can be proactively nurtured and developed. This programme aimed to teach the students how to develop physiological and emotional resilience ahead of their role as mentors in Afghanistan, but also in their future work and home life.

The initiative prompted a mixed reaction, with speculation over whether or not such an approach could be applied to the armed forces. Many believe that military personnel thrive on stress and perform well under it, which of course they do, but the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide tell us that the long-term consequences are potentially catastrophic.

So how can we train our military personnel to recover from the harsh experiences they will inevitably face? How can managing stress more effectively “in the moment” be achieved? While the military excels at physical training and gives focus to psychological resilience, what about emotional intelligence and physiology?

Dealing with “stress in the moment”

The military students were presented with an approach to stress resilience called HeartMath, which encourages an individual to work with the complete body, including emotions. Used by the US armed forces, this scientifically validated practice teaches individuals how to change their heart rate variability in order to create “coherence” – a scientifically measurable state.

Supporting technology allows the individual to accurately measure results and see improvements being made. When a state of coherence has been achieved, the individual is more balanced, is able to judge situations clearly and react accordingly. The negative effects of stress on the body are also immensely reduced and this is all down to the advanced techniques that enable physiological and emotional recovery, balancing the body’s hormones and nervous system.

Fight or flight

This technique will not work for everyone as it requires a willingness to develop some emotional self-awareness, which can be just a step too far for some. The sad truth is, those who reject the concept are often the ones that need it the most. There may be a time in the future when they experience a new type of stress that these techniques could help combat.

The ability to perform the HeartMath technique when moving from “theatre” of operations to normal civilian life is hugely beneficial for the armed forces and their families, but they must be willing to try not to dismiss it as being just a lesson on how to breathe.

One student shared that they had served in Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan, yet the time when the HeartMath strategies could have helped him most was as a welfare officer. Taking on the welfare role brought with it a whole new dimension to his life and proved to be the most stressful period in his army career.

We all experience emotions, and some would argue none more than so than for those in the military, but recognising those emotions and how they affect our behaviour can prove difficult. At a recent conference, the chief of medical staff for the Special Air Service (SAS) spoke about relationships between personnel, and said “We have love for each other”.

Some SAS tactics require soldiers to put themselves in situations of extreme danger. On occasions when the team is outnumbered, they are required to run at the enemy, putting trust in each other, which, in turn, builds a bond based on honour, love and respect. The very reason people join the armed forces can be driven by emotions of honour and pride, so it is incorrect to assume that the military is lacking the required emotion to implement resilience techniques such as HeartMath.

Applying personal resilience coaching for the military

There are several ways that HeartMath resilience programmes can be tailored for the British Armed Forces. Coaching can be offered to key members such as Army Recruiting and Training Division instructors, or as part of a pre-deployment suite of training for officers in order to help diffuse any of their associated stress, so they can continue to lead their team effectively. Coaching can also be targeted at teams within a particular area of the military, such as bomb disposal, welfare or hostage negotiations.

To have strong, resilient personnel in the military makes good moral and financial sense. With the help of HeartMath they can perform at their peak, face challenges with resilience and recover from these stressful periods by balancing their physiology and emotional state. With this new form of training for the armed forces, HeartMath techniques can offer more control to chaotic situations and relief in times of dismay, whether on the battlefield or at home.

If the military is ready to take on resilience-building strategies to enhance performance, productivity and quality of life, then maybe it is time that other organisations did the same.

About Julie Courtney

Julie Courtney is founder of The Resilience Formula and Stress Solutions, and Energy Clinic.
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