8 Lessons from Soldiers to Deal with Uncertainty and Stress

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. Photo by Cpl. Clayton VonDerAhe.

In this time of uncertainty, anxiety and fear, we look for tools to help us to cope. There are many lessons to be learned from our men and women in uniform.

A soldier’s job involves learning to cope with stress and crisis.  Even if they aren’t in the middle of the action, they have been trained hard on dealing with crisis when it presents itself.  They absolutely have to be resilient.  Military training (especially Basic) is designed to take soldiers to physical and mental extremes.  The physical stresses result in exhaustion, hunger and pain.  The emotional stressors of unpredictability, a loss of a sense of time, peer pressure, being forced to adapt to new environments and new expectations – these challenge even the strongest individuals.  Although the physical training can be extreme, in addition to resulting in fitness, it mostly forces soldiers to discipline their minds and gain confidence and perspective.  Their coping skills are being honed.

It might seem like a wee stretch to compare Basic training to self-quarantine. After all, here we are watching Netflix on the sofa with a bag of chips and a cold beer at our side.  But there are real comparisons to be made: gross uncertainty, sharing confined quarters and a lack of control over our situation.

Soldiers who have been deployed to war zones would tell you that 95% of the time (or more) they deal with boredom and the anticipation of a looming attack. They may hear about climbing death statistics while having no clear notion when a situation might intensify or will end.

The skills and lessons learned in the military can be useful for us civilians today, as we try to cope with the current crisis.

Find Purpose and Meaning

Soldiers have a mission.  Everything they do – from keeping in top physical condition to conducting drills, cleaning out barracks to learning new skills, is in support of that mission.  That mission gives them a clear sense of purpose. 

Knowing why you are getting up in the morning is critical to mental health. It helps focus your day’s activities and keep you productive and positive.  Identify a mission and set goals for every day.

Soldiers also understand what it means to sacrifice for the greater good.  They put “we” over “me.”

We are being asked to sacrifice our time, leisure and finances to stay at home not only to protect ourselves but others. We are being asked to put “we” over “me.”

Help Your Friends

Soldiers fight first and foremost for their brothers in arms. Supporting the guy to their right and left is their creed.  Knowing that others have your back is empowering.  Putting the needs of others before you is also a source of power.

Reaching out to your friends and neighbors to offer support, communicate news, share and help is the best remedy for isolation.  We are fortunate that there are infinite digital and virtual options at our disposal to connect online.  There’s strength in numbers.  We just have to consciously create the mass.

A relatively small percentage of armed forces are combatants; the rest of the military functions to support them.  

Today our front line combatants are doctors, nurses and lab techs, they are supermarket employees, truck drivers, delivery people and cleaners.  These are the heroes of this pandemic who are frankly risking their lives to save us.  We need to do everything we can to acknowledge and support these civilian soldiers at battle against Covid-19.

Avoid Things Beyond Your Control

A soldier cannot afford to spend his or her time annoyed by surprise inspections.  Or worried about the specifics of the next deployment.  Their entire existence in the military is in the hands of others.

In addition to being a waste of time, dwelling on things we cannot control is just crazy making.  Yes, it can be uncomfortable.  But better to concentrate on those elements of our lives that are in fact within our control.  That’s where our attention needs to be.

Be a Leader

Being confident, taking decisions and making things happen is what a successful soldier does, every day.  When under fire or pressure, he or she can ill afford to wait and see.  He has been trained to act; survival depends on action.  A lot of effort goes into developing a soldier’s self reliance and it is meant to be used.

There is a leader in every one of us who can in a moment take charge and move things forward.  The burden of leadership can and should be shared.  This is especially true if you have kids with you at home. This is a great time to delegate responsibilities to them. Have them clean their rooms, water the plants or even cook a meal for the entire family. They might be missing out on school lessons but you have an unprecedented opportunity to educate them to assume responsibilities and to lead.  Kids aside, pick up the reins when your roommate, colleague or spouse needs relief, and vis versa.

Tent Living – Making the Best of It

Make Your World Smaller

For many soldiers, a military base or at times a tent, is their entire world. They content themselves with the essentials – food, water, a place to sleep.  

When less is available, we tend to appreciate whatever we have – all the more.  After a hot long trek, that sip of warm canteen water is delicious, and the can of spam is a culinary delight.  When you’ve been up for 2 days, the chance to sleep in the least comfortable conditions is very welcome.  

Since for many of us commuting to work and traffic, booked calendars, wide ranging activities, engagement with tons of people, running from this to that is …. stopped, we are left with our home and immediate neighborhood.  We’re in the tent, as it were.  So savor that home cooked meal.  Take a leisurely walk.  Notice the  spring blooms on that tree.  Adapt to less and you may well find that it is more.

Keep Going

At some point during a day-long, bazillion mile march carrying a full field rucksack a soldier feels like they cannot take one more single step.  Impossible, no can do.  But they do take another step because they simply have to keep going.  It’s mind over matter.

We may not know when our Covid-19 trek will end, but the only attitude to hold is to just move forward one day at a time.  What matters is what we are doing right now, and making the best life we can for ourselves and our family, right now.  Give and get pep talks.  Know that we will get through this.  Develop resources and grit you may not have known you have. That grit will serve you once the crisis has passed.

Be Prepared

A military motto we should adopt is “we can afford being attacked but we can not afford being surprised.” Following this motto does not mean stocking up on a year’s supply of toilet paper or gearing like we are facing nuclear holocaust. It means that we should be aware of the situation, take simple and measured actions to prevent exposure to the threat (via social distancing and hygiene) and work to mitigate the consequences of threat should it be realized (you or your loved ones getting infected.)

Avoid paranoia or succumbing to your fears. Don’t be indifferent but rather aware and prepared logistically and mentally. Use the ample time you have on your hands to prepare a budget for the coming weeks or months, review your insurance policies and most importantly, insure you can support and be supported by a network of friends and family.

Soldiers down range anticipating a looming attack make sure they are well defended and that support and backup is close by. 

Use Humor

Making fun of each other and situations is one way soldiers cope and let off steam.

Humor is a great tool for instantly shifting perspective.  What’s more, laughter decreases stress hormones while increasing immune cells and infection fighting antibodies, improving our resistance to disease.  Laughter triggers the release of endorphins which in addition to promoting a sense of well-being can even relieve pain.  So here you go:

At this point, my body has absorbed so much soap and disinfectant that now when I pee .. I clean the toilet.

…and …

The Sergeant-Major growled at the young soldier: “I didn’t see you at camouflage training this morning.”   

“Thank you very much, sir.”

At ease, people.

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6 Comments

  1. A. Goldman on April 1, 2020 at 3:17 pm

    “The only easy day, was yesterday.” Believe that, and whatever comes next, comes in stride.

  2. Sara Lapsley on April 1, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    A great read! Thank-you.

  3. Angela on April 1, 2020 at 10:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing! I will pass on the lessons to my colleagues from the office in order to help them “soldier on” 🤓

  4. Shifra on April 4, 2020 at 12:08 am

    Thanks to the soldiers. Always try to keep the humor.

  5. Martin Bryant on April 4, 2020 at 11:57 pm

    A good read and solid advice
    Thanks for this
    I suspect it will embolden a lot of people

  6. chay holganza on April 7, 2020 at 6:09 pm

    Loved this! Always good to have positive reads such as this during challenging times. Yup, we soldier on!!!

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