For Every Mile of Darkness, We Need an Equal Distance of Light

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness- Desmond Tutu

Veterans can be a pessimistic group. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with that; just making an observation. The military made us this way, right? Constant vigilance. “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst” is a phrase that veterans often say to me. The problem with the word “but” is that it negates or minimizes everything before the word…”hope for the best” is less important than “plan for the worst.” Even when planning training or a mission, we consider the most dangerous course of action, and plan for it; that’s why we have five claymores an an AT-4 in the back of the vehicle. Just. In. Case.

We often carry that into our post-military lives, where it seeps into a lot of the different things that we do. Sometimes, we just get stuck in the negative, painful, or unpleasant. A friend recently sent a meme that pokes fun at it, but like many things (as Deniro said in The Untouchables), “We laugh because it’s funny…and we laugh because it’s true.”

Is that mental collapse inevitable, though? Not necessarily. I’ve written about how we can use concepts of positive psychology during miltiary transition, and this is along those same lines. One of the things about pessimism is that we forget that we have the ability to deliberately replace a negative outlook with optimism. That’s what the title of this post means: for every mile of darkness, we need an equal distance of light in our lives to to balance that out. Perhaps more, even; for every one mile of darkness, travel two miles of light. We can, and should, do this in order to live the post-military life we desire. To not continue to be in pain. No not continue to suffer.

Why Do We Focus on Negativity?

As I mention above, it’s ingrained in us from the beginning of our time in the miltiary. Medics are taught to search and treat the most catastrophic wound first. Infantry seeks out the enemy. Even in logistics, we anticipate potential problems and apply solutions even before the problem happens. All of this simply compounds our brain’s inherent negativity bias, the tendency to focus more on negative things than positive things. That’s something that has kept us alive, certainly, and absolutely when a veteran was in the military and deployed to a combat zone…but a tendency that is less beneficial when we are sitting in a barbecue with friends and family.

Why Should We Seek Positivity?

It is simply a fact that unpleasant emotions aren’t always enjoyable. Sadness. Disgust. Fear. Even anger, which some (many) veterans enjoy, gets in the way of things we want to do. Sure, there are reasons for these emotions; no one is saying don’t feel them. When we experience a loss, we should absolutely feel sad. The problem happens when that sadness does not dissipate, and turns into despair or depression. Or the fear turns to terror. More than that, though, studies show that intense, prolonged negative emotions can cause physiological changes as well: high blood pressure. Hypertension. These emotions are associated with changes in our neural pathways, our cardiovascular and endocrine systems, and even our muscles. Prolonged negative emotion is not just psychological painful, it can be physically painful as well.

Does It Even Work?

If you believe it does, sure. If you think it’s crap, then deliberately focusing on positive things to counterbalance negative things won’t be effective for you. That’s how the mindset works: as Henry Ford famously said, “if you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” The study linked above gives documented proof that it does work: positive emotion broadens our thinking and our behavior. They increase our mental flexibility, develop stronger coping techniques within us, and motivate engagement in enjoyable social activities. Most important is the fact that, as we start to feel positive emotion, we want to experience more of it, creating an upward spiral of wellness and resilience (Garland, Fredrickson, Kring, Johnson, Meyer, & Penn, 2010).

How Do We Not Do It?

This is not just some “look on the bright side” pollyanna optimism; that kind of thinking often minimizes the importance of the event that caused the painful emotion. Things are going wrong at work…”well, at least you have a job.” Brené Brown has a great short video that shows the difference between sympathy and empathy, and the dangers of trying to simply create a silver lining around a bad situation

So How Do We Do It?

Like many other things that we’re not used to doing, we need to do it deliberately. We have to consciously search for, and experience, positive things to counteract negative things that are happening. The Army’s Master Resilience Training teaches soldiers to Hunt the Good Stuff: deliberately focusing on, and analyzing, positive things that have happened within a period of time. Again, it’s not simply wiping out the negative; it’s acknowledging the negative while also acknowledging the positive. It’s a key part of the awareness and accountability log that I developed: identifying three good things that happened during the day. Deliberately seeking out positive things or relationships we have in our life, and reflecting on them there.

The cycle between positive and negative can be repetitive: we think a negative thought, and then find a positive thought to counterbalance it. We then say, “yeah, but” and follow it up with a negative thought. Sort of like a roulette wheel…wherever the cycle stops, that’s what you’re going to feel. Stop on negative, experience unpleasant emotions; stop on positive, experience pleasant emotions. It’s as easy…and as difficult…as that.

Consider these phrases as you go through your day:

For every moment of despair, search for a moment of hope
For every moment of sadness, search for a moment of joy
For every moment of terror, search for a moment of calm
For every moment of anger, search for a moment of peace
For every moment of pain, search for a moment of pleasure

Perhaps, in this way, we can start to allow the darkness to lift and the light to take over.

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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Duane France
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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.