Veteran Mental Health: Focusing on the Future, Not The Past

Paratroopers climb an obstacle during physical fitness training at Fort Bragg, N.C., March 24, 2016. Army photo by Sgt. Anthony Hewitt

I hear you all ready: “Get out of here with that ‘therapy is about the future, not the past’ crap. Talking about my past is what therapy is all about.” Granted, when a veteran sits down to talk to a mental health professional, they are going to talk about the past. The therapist is going to inquire about it, and the veteran is going to answer. But is that any different than going to any other health professional? If I go into the doctor with a broken arm, maybe they don’t need to know how it happened.  It is definitely something that is in the past that will be addressed, however. Identifying the causes of the current distress or behavior is sort of necessary in order to move forward with a plan to manage the distress or change something in our behavior.

Just because the past is something that is talked about in therapy, however, doesn’t mean that’s what it is about.

The idea that mental health counseling is about the future goes along with the idea of looking at it as mental wellness instead of mental illness. Of seeing the process of talking to a therapist as a sign of strength, and wisdom in applying the appropriate measures in a difficult time, rather than weakness. I mean, why else would you go to see a doctor about a broken arm, unless you want that doctor to use their expertise to a) stop the pain (a pain-free future), and b) set the break so that it heals properly (a future of full functionality of your arm). The same can be applied to working with a mental health professional.

A Future of Peace

I’ve said it often; for veterans, our wars are over. Whether we are twenty-seven or seventy-seven, our time of service is in the past. There was some cool stuff that we did, and horrible stuff that we did, but it’s behind us now. In our post-military lives, we’re not kicking down doors or running ammo or calling for fire on a target. We can use the skills that we learned in the military to lead productive, peaceful, meaningful post-military lives.

Sometimes, however, the past gets in the way. We hold on to things that happened to us, which hold us back from finding our full potential. We don’t realize that we need to shift from how we operated in combat or in the military to a different way of operating in our post-miltiary life. That’s where talking to a mental health professional can be beneficial: setting down the sword and shield and learning how to live in a future of peace.

A Future of Productivity

Continuing on the idea of our post-miltiary lives: getting stuck in the past can hamper our productivity in the future. If the weight of the past is binding us, then we are not as productive as we can be. If we are struggling with depression, or isolation, or guilt, or any number of psychological challenges, then we’re not going to get as much done as if we didn’t have to deal with that stuff. Sleepless nights lead to crappy days, and anger and frustration lead to misjudged relationships.

I often describe to my veteran clients that removing the negative does not automatically lead to increasing the positive. Just because we stop being sad doesn’t mean that we are going to be happy; it’s not just about getting back up to zero (a lack of a painful emotion) but about getting above zero, to a life of satisfaction. By becoming aware of why we do the things we do, and then deciding to change them if we want to, we can get to life of productivity in spite of what happened to us or what we did.

A Future of Acceptance

As my friend and colleague Eddie Lazzari often says, “You will never be a civilian again.” That’s the truth. Anyone who has served a significant time in the military is changed from what they were before. We are no longer service members, Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, etc. But we are also not a “civilian.” We’re this entirely third thing, a “veteran,” with all of the benefits and detriments that go along with it. We see the world differently. We think more globally than someone who has never left their state, much less the country. Many of us, those who have been to combat, have seen the worst that humanity has to offer. Coming to terms with that can be difficult, but not impossible; working with a mental health professional can help make that change.

Working Now for a Pain-Free Future

I see if often in veterans I work with. After an understanding of what they experienced, recognizing how they’ve coped with it in the past hasn’t gotten them the outcomes that they wanted, and learning ways to get different outcomes, they get to a place of peace. Of acceptance. I tell them, “I’m not concerned with right now, or next week or next month. I want to help the you thirty years from now.” That’s what I’m focused on; how do I help the veteran in front of me find peace in the future, so that when their grandkids say, “Grandma, Grandpa, what did you do in the war?,” they can tell them about their experiences without taking a shot of whisky or breaking down in tears.

That’s what working with a therapist can do; head things off at the pass, set the psychological bone right, so to speak, so that you can have a pain-free and productive future.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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3 thoughts on “Veteran Mental Health: Focusing on the Future, Not The Past

  1. Great Article! I’ve been going to therapy for a year and still struggled with my illnesses. One therapist used a technique called ACT-Acceptance and commitment therapy. It taught me to accept my anxiety and other associated issues and focus on the things I value most to improve my quality of life. I still suffer on a daily basis, but it doesn’t consume me. An added benefit is that my relationship with my family has improved tremendously and I can now see a future instead of being stuck in the past.

  2. Thanks for the feedback and the comment, Tim! Glad to hear that it resonated with you. I literally just finished with a conversation with Dr. Joseph Currier from the Univeristy of South Alabama, talking about Moral Injury, for an upcoming episode of the Head Space and Timing podcast. He talked about how ACT is being used effectively for many different things, including moral injury. Thanks for sharing!

  3. What a great opening to a discussion about post-traumatic growth! Effective therapy for Post Traumatic Stress utilizes information from the past as relates to how that history is currently running and directing the course of post traumatic growth. Through examining our clients’ history we can identify negative core beliefs, such as “I’m not good enough”. These are the real culprits that drive post-traumatic stress and our work must necessarily provide client-driven interventions to dispel and replace with evidence supported positive core beliefs. What we also know about the treatment of trauma is that revisiting and engaging in specific narratives of traumatic memory is not as important as it is to identify how the mind, body, and soul respond to triggers in the here and now. We find that retelling and ruminating on the details places our clients at risk of being re-traumatizing and therefore exacerbating the condition. Therapy must accentuate skill building in mindfulness, presence, and self-soothing through engaging all body senses with the internal messages and emotions in the moment. Yoga, EMDR, presence, or mindful motion, are just a few suggestions. I have found that the Negative Core Belief EMDR protocol that was devised by Gray Otis, PhD, is highly effective in getting a leg up on the growth pathway.

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