Does Time Heal the Psychological Impact of War?

A stopped clock lies where it fell in Room 3E452, located near the “hinge” of the floors that collapsed following the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. The 9/11 Commission determined that the plane hit the building at 9:37 a.m. Navy photo

It’s a statement that I’ve heard many veterans say: “I was told to just give it time, things would get better.” Is that really true? There is something very powerful about the passage of time, of course. Hindsight is 20/20, distance gives us perspective, and all that. But just allowing time to pass, does that make things that happened any easier to bear?

A recent episode of the Legends and Losers podcast highlighted a statement from author Kevin Maney: “No matter what happens in life, whether we think it’s good or bad, try not to evaluate it in the moment. The truth is, we don’t know whether it’s truly good or bad until we get some distance from it.” As I consider that statement from the lens of veteran mental health, I can see that it applies. When we get distance from an event, we see how that event impacted our life. It’s very hard to evaluate the impact of an event as you are experiencing it, or even removed from it by a couple of months or years.

Don’t get me wrong; the loss of our brothers or sisters, or a significant traumatic event, is never going to magically turn into rainbows and puppy dogs, no matter how much time passes. For example, the picture at the top of this post; no amount of time will lessen the impact of 9/11.  And I will never say that “it’s a good thing that this happened” to traumatic loss. What time does, though, is give us perspective about these events, and an opportunity to understand them.

This can apply to other really horrible situations, though. As I’ve mentioned before, I work with justice involved veterans. One of the common statements I hear is, “it really sucks that it happened, but it was probably the best thing for me.” Here are some other thoughts on how the passage of time can provide both perspective and relief.

The Passage of Time Reduces Emotions

It is very, very difficult to maintain a heightened state of emotional response for an extended period of time. The human body is not designed to operate for very long on extreme rage, severe terror, or debilitating depression. Emotions are critical for our interaction with each other, for communication, and even for survival. We wouldn’t have them if they weren’t necessary. Like many necessary things, however, too much of a useful thing could be counterproductive. If we react to a perceived great thing with positive emotions, be careful: it might not turn out the way we think. How many times have we expected something good and it turned out bad? Of course, we don’t have to always assume that the worst will happen either, but time passing will allow our emotions to subside.

When I was in the military, one of the things I tried to always do is not to make decisions during moments of extreme emotion. When I found myself starting to lose my temper (or, more often, someone brought it to my attention that it was already lost), I tried to take a step back and not make any hasty decisions through the fog of emotion. It didn’t always work…you can ask some of my joes…but, by and large, when I was angry, or frustrated, or down, I waited to make decisions. Those decisions I made in the heat of emotion were more likely to be poor ones.

The Passage of Time Allows Us To Apply Logic to Emotion

When considering an event, allowing time to pass lets the emotion cool down and the rational, reasonable side of our nature to take over. I’ve talked before about Dialectical Behavior Therapy; one of the first concepts that I teach veterans about DBT is how to identify states of mind. We have an Emotion Mind, which is based on our mood and focused on our emotion, and we have a Reasonable Mind, which is rational and task-oriented. When a significant event happens in our life, good or bad, we are likely to respond with emotion mind. When time passes after that event, we often use reasonable mind. The key, however, is to react to events, and life in general, with wise mind: the balance between the two.

I often describe Emotion Mind and Reasonable Mind in this way: Consider Sherlock Holmes, cold reason and cool logic, compared to Dr. Watson. Dr. Watson is passionate, impulsive, quick to anger and jump to conclusion. Holmes is Reasonable Mind, Watson is Emotional Mind. Or, consider it this way: Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Kirk is all impulsive emotion, Spock is rational restraint. In both of these pairs you have opposites that compliment each other; if left on his own, Holmes might figure it out, but miss the humanity in the problem. Kirk, if left to his own devices, would let his gut (or other things) get him into trouble that logic could have kept from happening. It is the combination of the two of them together, emotion and reason, that makes the teams truly effective. The passage of time allows reason to counterbalance the emotion.

The Passage of Time Gives Us More Information to Consider

One thing that we get with time is the ability to reflect on the event, and consider how subsequent events have played out. When it comes to making sense of trauma, though, time is not just enough to heal. I have seen veterans who have entire decades pass, and they are just as frustrated, angry, and bitter about things that have happened thirty years ago as they are about something that happened yesterday. Do we really take the time to consider things in the intervening time, or are we still caught up in the emotion of the original event?

Simply allowing the locked foot locker of our mind to remain, unopened, with all the horrible crap in there that we don’t want to think about, isn’t going to heal things. Opening it, unpacking it, keeping what’s important and throwing out what’s not helpful…that’s the benefit that time gives us. That’s why we shouldn’t react in the moment…because it’s the moments after that truly define the event.

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.