As I’m sure it has with many others, COVID-19 has forced me to look trauma straight in the face. Few things compel us to do this more immediately than threats to our physical health and to our way of life, including our financial security. A pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 challenges us on both counts.
Since 2004, I have been helping severely wounded warriors with their recovery. I am amazed by their ability to handle adversity from both the physical and “invisible” injuries of war. After researching our mental health system and looking for better ways of providing care to veterans, servicemembers, and first responders, I landed on the research of Drs. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. Their work in posttraumatic growth validated what I have known to be true for years: “What doesn’t kill us can actually make us stronger.”
In an Axios survey released on March 24, 43% of U.S. adults said that their emotional well-being had deteriorated in the past week, and 14% said the same of their physical well-being. These rather extreme numbers show us how the trauma we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic is affecting our overall health. Collectively, we must learn how to grow from our experiences. We must learn to struggle well.
The strategy for struggling well is based upon the framework of posttraumatic growth, inclusive of five elements: 1) education: teaching you what trauma is, how our bodies react to it, and what opportunities for growth look like; 2) regulation: learning self-regulation practices like breathing, exercise, and mediation; 3) disclosure: talking to others about what happened; 4) story: creating a new story and how you will live the rest of your life; and 5) service: how you can use your story and experiences to serve others.
To struggle well, we must learn to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions so that we can make conscious choices about who and how we want to be in each moment. Doing so requires having a close network of 3 to 5 friends and mentors (your “3–5”) who are principled and supportive and hold us accountable. Second, we must observe solid self-regulation practices. We know that those who can’t self-regulate often self-medicate, and this usually leads to disastrous outcomes.
There are several strategies that can help us all struggle well during these difficult times. These strategies focus on elements of what we call the Wellness Triangle: Mind, Body, and Finances define the points of the triangle with Spirituality in the center. As you pursue these, measure yourself on a scale of 1–5 (1 being the lowest) and then start living a life where every day you do better than the day before.
MIND: A strong mind provides you with the ability to concentrate, be creative, learn new concepts and skills, and increase your wisdom.
- Take breaks from the news, social media, and articles and dive into educating yourself on something new.
- Less TV, and more reading!
- Stay focused on what the experts say (CDC) and stay clear of listening to or proliferating misinformation and negativity.
- Meditate for 10 to 20 minutes twice a day to keep your mind energized, calm, and refreshed. You can check out Headspace or Insight Timer to learn meditation techniques.
- Stay positive and stay connected with your “3–5” via video chat, phone calls, and/or text messaging.
- Clean up your social media “friends” lists.
- Breathe! We use the 4-7-8 technique. Inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of 8.
- Sleep 8 hours a night.
BODY: A strong and healthy body means you are fit enough to do what you want and need to do. Exercise, nutrition, and hydration are the keys to body wellness. A healthy body helps keep your immune system strong!
- Exercise, walk, and stretch daily. Taking a walk outside is a great way to clear your mind.
- Don’t overeat. Stick to planned meals and healthy snacks.
- Drink 8 to 10 glasses of water a day.
- Minimize junk food, energy drinks, and alcoholic beverages.
- Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid crowds over 10 people in size and close contact with people who are sick.
FINANCES: Financial wellness is about your external environment—where you live, how you live, and how much you have to live on over the short-, medium-, and long-terms.
- Dive into your budget, and ensure you adhere to it.
- Don’t allow the daily stock market functions and effects on your portfolio get you down. Contact your financial advisor for advice. Remember that selling in a down market can cause loss.
- Plan for the next several months how you can live with less and cut your spending.
- Consider a new savings account dedicated solely for emergencies.
- Remember that material solutions don’t bring long-term happiness. Overspending can cause serious issues.
SPIRITUALITY: Spirituality is defined by your character, the strength of your relationships, and the extent in which you serve others.
- Use technology to stay in touch with your “3–5” and loved ones.
- Give back to your community any way you can. This current crisis is highlighting the needs of our children and the elderly. Be there for others.
- Use this time to connect with your family and spend time together talking, playing games, and watching TV or movies.
- Do an internal inventory of your character. Are you the woman/man that you really want to be? Check out the VIA Strengths Assessment for an objective measure, and have others in your “3–5” do the same. Discuss the results.
- Live a congruent life! A life where your thoughts, feelings, and actions are all positively aligned.
In May 2018, I co-authored a book titled Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma. It is an overview of the work we do with veterans through a nonprofit organization called Boulder Crest, coupled with the personal story of my co-author Josh Goldberg, as well as my own. I feel strongly that this book and our philosophy are timeless; and I can’t think of a better time to share a quick overview in hopes of teaching you how to struggle well through these tough times.
Ken Falke, a veteran who spent 21 years in the US Navy as a bomb disposal specialist and author of Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma, is also the founder of Boulder Crest Institute, the nation’s first privately funded wellness center dedicated exclusively to combat veterans and their families.