Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D., Lt. Col. (USAR Ret.)
Warrior & Rescuer Wellbeing & Spirituality Retreat
Indrylaya Retreat Center, Orcas Island, San Juan Islands, WA
October 11-14, 2018
I’m so grateful to be here with you at this warrior and rescuer retreat. Any of you would do this topic justice, and I’m humbled to share my thoughts. We’ve asked the questions:
- “Is.Is it possible to run to danger and still live a good life?” The answer is yes, but it’s not easy when you see what you see and step in what you do.
- What does it take? We need to change our training approaches, starting with our schools and continuing throughout: basic training; police, fire, and service academies; and our careers.
My thoughts are colored by my experience, which is: I’m a West Point graduate, Vietnam-era Army veteran. After active duty, I stayed in the Reserves for twenty. I then taught high school in a factory town for three years and saw up close what our young people are facing—suicide, drugs, and such. In the 80s and beyond I joined the stress management faculties at the Pentagon, International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, and the University of Maryland, where I started teaching resilience and coping skills courses, and found that such training increased resilience, happiness, self-esteem, optimism, and curiosity (related to flow), while reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anger. During this time I wrote 13 books. On the dis-order side of the spectrum were books on PTSD, depression, anger, anxiety and stress. On the health side were books on resilience, happiness, and self-esteem, including interviews with 41 resilient WWII combat survivors —asking not just what they did, but what was going on in their hearts and minds. Now my wife and I lead the addiction recovery program through our church.
What Have I Learned?
I’m a big fan of excellence. We feel best when we are living up to our capacities. I’m not a fan of fear-driven perfectionism. We know what casts out fear.
Today, and this has been the case throughout medical and psychological history, we typically look for those who have broken or are on the verge of succumbing to PTSD, suicide, and the like, and then try feverishly to repair the damage. To those who have helped our loved ones recover, I say thank you. And how much more effective it would be to go way upstream, assume we are all vulnerable, and equip people with universal prevention skills.
Speaking of strengthening vulnerabilities in a preventive way, I learned while serving on the editorial board of a journal on emergency mental health and human resilience that cops die on average 22 years younger than their peers. Things like environmental toxins and weight gain matter, but miss the deeper vulnerabilities. We prepare our people well tactically, but not for the emotional aftermath. For example, we teach our soldiers about fighting and combat stress, but don’t prepare them emotionally for killing in the line of duty, or for moral injury. And a word about accumulated misery. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; loss of parent to divorce or separation; and living in a household with domestic violence, drugs, mental illness or suicide, or incarceration. When experienced in the first 18 years of life, and especially in the first three years of life, ACEs predict a wide range of medical, psychological, and functional problems, including suicide, ADHD, PTSD, and depression. These events, if unresolved, can burn into brain cells of children and affect them far into adulthood. For example, a study of 448 Dutch soldiers showed that ACEs changed 45,000 genes in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that influences vulnerability to emotional stress and PTSD. Genes are passed down faithfully from one generation to another, but rarely directly cause diseases, However, sitting alongside genes are epigenomes. Epigenomes determine gene expression. Epigenomes turn genes on and off and, like a dimmer switch, determine the intensity of their activity. Epigenomes are affected by stress and our environment, and are passed down intergenerationally, making one vulnerable to panic disorder, anxiety, PTSD and shame. Fortunately, epigenomes can be affected for bad and good.
The healing and preventive agent is love. I used to be reluctant to use that word because it sounded unscientific and squishy, but the data is clear. Love changes our biology in significant ways. This can be a hard sell for the people we work with. But when we think about it, love is at the heart of courage. Audie Murphy, one of the most highly decorated American combat soldiers in WWII, including the Medal of Honor, was asked by reporters how he had the courage to do what he did. He said, “They were killing my friends.” Indeed, the root of the word courage in Latin and French is the word for heart. As Rick so well said, compassion, is requisite for good leadership. It’s also required for being fully human.
We can better absorb stress and maintain ourselves when we know we’re loved. There are contemplative practices that cultivate love, such as mindfulness, self-compassion, and heart coherence.
We can also strengthen warriors by walking them through trauma and effective psychotherapeutic strategies so that they are prepared should the need arise.
We can train our people in happiness, which correlates positively with many indicators of mental, physical, and functional health, and correlates inversely with indicators of mental, physical, and functional problems. The practice of being grateful for life’s good things has been well studied.
Another well-studied area is spirituality and religious practice. I used to be reluctant to discuss this, but the data is now compelling. In the WWII survivors I interviewed, 40 of 41 were believers. The exception was a respectful agnostic whose son became a Jesuit priest. They spoke of a loving God, belief in whom gave them comfort. This was a highly moral group, who spoke of chaste courtships and fidelity in marriage. Ed Tick has written about the Vietnamese, who suffered far less PTSD than our troops because they cultivated forgiveness and compassion for their enemies. When the war was over, they welcomed our troops into their homes to share a meal and honor each other’s wounds, saying, “We would fight you to the death during the war, but now that the war is over, we are brothers who share a common history.”
I’ve learned much about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) of late. I used to think that the spirituality of the movement was rather vague. Such is not the case. AA literature describes people who seek peace and comfort in a bottle, which only works transiently. By contrast, sobriety is described as the ability to live comfortably, peacefully, and joyously with self and God, who takes care of His children when they let Him lead. An AA premise is that alcoholics won’t recover without a spiritual basis; faith is part of our makeup. My wife and I have seen miracles occur when people let Him lead. This makes no sense to some, until they try it. As one teen said, “Once you figure out that God loves you, all else falls into place.”
Much research establishes that religiously observant people on average are happier, healthier, less likely to suicide, abuse drugs, or divorce. And a recent Harvard study followed teens prospectively, finding that weekly religious service attendance and/or daily prayer/meditation led to greater emotional well-being, resilience, happiness, character, and altruism, and less drug use.
One of the strongest predictors of happiness worldwide is wholesome self-esteem—a strength that we frequently overlook when discussing resilience. I don’t mean the silly idea that everything you do is wonderful and deserves a trophy. I mean a quiet inner gladness to be who you are, a secure anchor that is not shaken by the winds of adversity. In 1980, I studied under the premier self-esteem researcher, Morris Rosenberg. He had spent many years linking low self-esteem to a multitude of problems. I asked him once after class how you raise self-esteem in adults who lack it. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” Finding that response unsatisfactory, I set out to build courses in resilience that had a strong self-esteem component. I define self-esteem as simply a realistic, appreciative opinion of oneself, that rests on three building blocks: (1) unconditional worth as a person (as opposed to market or social worth); (2) unconditional love (like what a parent feels for an obviously imperfect child); and (3) the process of growing, which is enjoyable when the first two building blocks are securely in place. Each building block has associated skills. I tried to figure out how to convey the idea that imperfect people have infinite, unchanging human worth. The symbol I came up with is this spherical crystal, whose facets reflect the light so beautifully. This sphere represents who each of us is at the core —our spiritual self. We say that a newborn is complete, but not completed, meaning each of us comes here with every attribute in embryo needed to live fruitfully. So one facet might represent love, another humor, and still another confidence. Although you and I might differ on how refined these traits are, we each have them all in embryo, capable of being developed. Externals —such as appearance, education, wealth, health, or relationship status—can either shine or camouflage the core. For example, love is like a light shining on the core that helps us to appreciate who we are. Or, we can cover up the core with PTSD, mistreatment, bad chemistry, or shame. Neither covering nor shining up the core changes the basic worth of the core, just how we experience it.
In our retreat, we’ve talked about disengaging from our warrior identity at appropriate times. Wholesome self-esteem reminds us that your job is not your identity; it is just a role we’ve chosen.
Abraham Maslow, who had the good sense to break with Freud, and was also a kind professor, according to my mother who was taught by him at Brooklyn College, said that every falling away from virtue without exception registers in the unconscious mind to our discredit, and every good that we do registers to our credit. Real guilt is not being true to yourself—your own intrinsic nature—and is a good thing, as it can guide us to grow toward our potentialities. Good leaders, not just chaplains, will encourage their people to live morally—not through fear, but with more of the attitude: “We’re all in the same boat, trying to live good lives. I want you to look back on your careers with peace, not regrets.”
I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Louis Zamperini. He shared a number of things that the movie Unbroken, and even the book, omitted. Zamperini was an Olympic runner before WWII. When his bomber went down in the Pacific he survived, through sheer grit, 47 days on a life raft and more than two years of daily torture in the Japanese prison camps. The first camp commandant put his head on a log each day, raised his Samurai sword, and said that he was going to decapitate Zamperini. When Louie returned home after the war, he was, understandably, a mess. He was drinking, getting into fights, wasting his savings, and his marriage was on the rocks. What happened next was that his wife attended in Los Angeles Billy Graham’s first large revival. Afterwards, she told Louie that she would not divorce him because she felt happy, but begged him to attend. He did, and bolted halfway through. He said, “I knew I was in the dark, but was afraid of the light.” She and friends prayed that he’d return. He did, and was walking out a second time when he Heard Graham say that there are problems that cannot be solved with out God’s help. When in trouble, people often pray. Louie thought, “I’m in trouble, out of options.” For the first time, his whole life flashed before him—and the many miracles that had sustained him during the war. He remembered his promises to seek and serve God if he were allowed to survive. Louie returned to the tent and committed his life to God. Feeling forgiven, he went home and poured his alcohol down the drain and threw out his cigarettes and girlie magazines. He said that that night was the first night in five years that he didn’t have a nightmare of the prison camps—and he had no more nightmares thereafter. I know of no psychological intervention for nightmares with such profound results. Afterwards, Louie became a counselor for juvenile delinquents like he had been, and returned to Japan, where he forgave his former torturers. He carried the torch in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics past one of his old prison camps with a peaceful smile.
We can teach things like leading family and workers with genuine caring. Despite the many studies showing that people work harder for leaders that show genuine interest in them, many leaders still lead by intimidation and fear. I think of John Wooden, perhaps the most successful sports figure in history, who was a stern, but respectful, taskmaster during practice, and after practice would sit and talk individually with his players about their lives. His players performed well under pressure because they felt secure with him. And studies show that when parents eat dinner with their kids, parents feel more successful at home and work, while the kids have fewer emotional problems.
A Comprehensive Plan
The model I use to grow resilience has several elements:
- Strengthening the Brain. About ten practices —including Mediterranean-like diets, exercise, sleep, and balancing the bacteria in the gut biome—work together to reduce brain inflammation and oxidative stress, while increasing the volume and functionality of key brain areas.
- Regulating Stress Arousal. When arousal is neither too high nor too low, the brain, heart, and gut function together smoothly. In this resilient zone, we are hardwired to think and speak effectively. So we might seek or offer support or negotiate with a threatening person. When stress arousal gets stuck on too high or too low, the brain is hardwired either for movement or immobilization, respectively. In either extreme, the areas of the brain involved with language and logical thought go offline. This makes sense when one is fighting, fleeing, or freezing to preserve one’s life. Words are typically ineffective when one is stuck outside of the resilient zone. But body-based skills—such as tracking what is going on in one’s arm when one slowly kneads it, or slowly moving when agitated or shut down—can very effectively return one to the resilient zone for effective functioning.
- Managing Strong, Distressing Emotions. A host of key skills help one manage strong emotions, before they erupt in harmful ways. Adaptations of EMDR, tapping treatments for trauma, cognitive therapy, mindfulness, self-compassion, confiding in writing, and managing nightmares are very useful, teachable skills.
- Preparing Emotionally for Crises. Emotional inoculation causes us to anticipate and prepare for worst-case scenarios before they occur. Grossman’s work on killing is one example. Anticipating moral challenges and reclaiming the honorable warrior identity, which is often disowned following the brutality of war, can be very useful. Preparing warriors for dissociation and early treatment readiness are also key elements.
- Happiness Skills. Because happy warriors will function better, enjoy better health, and stay on the job longer. Happiness skills can indeed be taught.
Things like resilience, inner peace, and happiness don’t fall in our laps. We have to work at them a little. When times are hard, we can take comfort in knowing that there are many resources at our disposal. Our warriors and rescuers who are tactically prepared perform brilliantly. Those who are emotionally prepared will perform even better. The wise warrior will pursue a lifelong course of building resilience and emotional intelligence.