Military families have a lot of experience helping loved ones overcome trauma-related stress and anxiety. Those experiences will become increasingly important as people focus on the mental health pandemic that’s already affecting millions.
For many, a valuable lesson is that the resources they need most may already be inside their homes or not far away.
A hand to hold or a hug (with permission).
A loved one who can listen without interruption, distraction, judgement, or giving in to the urge to offer advice.
Those are two aspects of bonding.
Bonding goes to the heart of reducing the impact of life’s natural stressors and relieving the impact of a once in a hundred-year event such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Access to civilization’s oldest remedy
Bonding is the unique combination of emotional and physical connection with another person. It’s perhaps our civilization’s oldest natural remedy, often less available to modern man than it was to our ancestors thousands of years ago.
It’s also among the most important contributions we can offer someone going through a mental health crisis.
Yet with all our amazing modern knowledge and training, few know how to create a safe space where they’re able to emotionally and physically connect with a person experiencing high levels of anxiety, stress, or trauma.
Parents often lose their connection with children when they’re needed most. So do siblings, spouses, close friends, colleagues, and many others.
When it comes to protecting the emotional health of loved ones, knowing how to create and sustain bonding can be as important as CPR.
Augusta, Georgia, 2009
On a Friday evening in 2009, I looked around the group of more than 30 military combat veterans and their spouses who’d gathered for the weekend in Augusta, Georgia. The sense of resignation, despair, sadness, and anger was palpable.
Few sat near their spouses.
There was little eye contact, hand contact, or, for that matter, any contact among the group, who shared one thing in common: they were military families impacted by combat deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. Each of these veterans had returned home with visible or invisible wounds of war; many with both.
By Sunday morning, few would have recognized that it was the same group of people. The room and each person present was imbued with hope. A shared sense of connection, commitment, and love had entirely replaced the pained emotions that had charged the room just hours earlier.
Overcoming a natural response to danger
Over much of the past year, many of the shared experiences that impacted those military families in Augusta have become common for millions.
- An ever-present sense of danger.
- Hyper vigilance and the constant scanning for threats.
- Trusting in nothing and no one.
- Loss of freedom and agency.
- Resignation to loss.
The experience of those military families in Augusta is important to understanding the potential for helping others impacted by the mental health pandemic that is now mutating its way through homes, classrooms, offices and neighborhoods throughout the world.
The answer is each other
Most important, the focus of that weekend wasn’t an entertaining presenter or psychologist who offered sage answers or advice. The focus was between the veteran and their spouse, partner or caregiver – the person with whom each veteran had arrived, and with whom each would go home.
What the couples learned were practical, usable skills that empowered them to find their own solutions to improving interpersonal communication (talking and listening), understanding emotions in themselves and others, and constructive conflict resolution. Those basic skills gave them a roadmap to reconnect with hope and commitment, find and implement their own solutions, and know they could reach out together for additional help if and when needed to address more complex issues.
There’s nothing extraordinary, magical, or remarkable about any of the skills the couples learned in that weekend, except that they’d never learned any of it before. A decade later, those couples and many others continue to be a testament to the program’s lasting efficacy.
Despite years of training and education, the most basic tools for relationships had never been taught. That’s true for many other people too.
That needs to be an important aspect of any national response to the mental health pandemic that has already arrived: a society in which more people have basic skills for creating and sustaining emotional and physical connection.
America’s military families, who have courageously overcome so much when it comes to navigating mental health challenges that are a very natural response to stressful, often traumatic events and circumstances of life, have a great deal to contribute.