Getting Perspective in Post-Military Life

An Air Force loadmaster sits on the ramp of a Chinook helicopter flying over the Cincu Training Area in Romania, June 6, 2017. Allied Joint Force Command Naples courtesy photo

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world – Rick Blaine, Casablanca

Sometimes, when we’re in the middle of a firefight, it’s hard to see the big picture. It’s equally challenging to understand what’s really going on if someone’s watching the battle unfold from a camera in the sky. In post-military life, especially when it comes to veteran mental health, sometimes we can get caught up in our perspective of our problems. If we’re isolating, we think that every veteran is experiencing the same thing. Or, if we look at social media, we may get the perspective that we’re the only ones struggling with something. Without taking a step back or moving away from the situation, we can become overwhelmed by events and become stuck in a stagnant routine.

Getting perspective provides context and control to the situation.

In many of the situations that veterans find themselves outside of the military, it’s easy to slip into a routine that makes you wonder where the week, or the year, went. When we were deployed, it was called “Groundfob Day,” that seemingly endless routine that happens day in and day out and never seems to change. Get up, chow, patrol or work call, get back, go to the gym, eat, hit the rack. Over and over again. That can also occur in the workforce, or in school, and especially if we’re not doing anything…just stuck in the rut of our post-military lives.

In other times, like when we’re in an emotional or psychological crisis, the perspective can shrink to only that time period, that moment or that hour. Nothing mattered before this moment, nothing matters after this moment, we’re just in the middle of it. It can be something that triggered our anxiety, or spun us into depression, but whatever happened, we’re there. Even when time passes, we can get caught in that moment, angry that it happened, worried that it’s going to happen again.

Here’s a couple of different ways that we can get a different perspective on our situation so that we can think

Get Perspective with the Passage of Time

With many things, the passage of time gives us a different point of view. Life looks very different at twenty compared to forty, and forty looks different from sixty. Some of that is life experience, some of it maturity, and some of it is just learning. As humans, we are unique in nature in that we have the ability to reflect on our past and predict our future, and reflecting on our past can give us greater perspective on our situations. In an article in 2013, Black and Liao indicate that this reflective nature is a survival mechanism.  It is required to be able to orient ourselves to time and place…we are now and we are here…but also giving understanding and meaning to our lives.

A unique challenge for some veterans, however, is that traumatic memories resist reflection and do not seem to live in the past, but instead persist in the present. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a leading researcher on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, observed that while some memories fade and change over time, traumatic memories do not. Time or things that happen after the traumatic memory do not seem to impact the event; in this case, another way to shift perspective is necessary.

Get Perspective with an Outside Point of View

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend of family member, and they said something about your situation that you had never considered? Many times, if we’re stuck in a place in our head and we’re focused inward, we don’t see what’s right in front of us. I describe it to the veterans I work with as rubber bullets bouncing around in our heads. If we allow it, these thoughts or judgements we have about ourselves and the world will get trapped in our mind. Letting them out in any way possible can be helpful. Sing it, shout it, draw it, write it, getting it out and into the real world in some way can allow us to step away from it.

Getting the point of view of another person, however, is a great way to get perspective. Maybe if we’re in the middle of a battle, and we hear from someone who’s looking at it from the camera in the sky. A mental health counselor can definitely support with that. Countless times, I’ve seen veterans who had not considered an alternate way of describing their situation. Bouncing your thoughts off of someone else is a great way to get perspective.

Get Perspective by Looking Around

Finally, we get so stuck in our heads that our world shrinks to us and our problems. Veterans are uniquely aware of the situation in the rest of the world, as they are much more likely to have been exposed to other cultures than those who haven’t served. It’s sometimes good to compare our current situation to that of others. This isn’t some, “buck up, trooper, at least you don’t have it as bad as them” statement. Instead, this is an accurate reflection on what’s happening in the life of other people. This happened to me recently; I was caught up in something in my own head, and had breakfast with a colleague…then found that they had been mugged the night before. Talk about getting perspective real quick…my own problem paled in comparison. That “hill of beans” I’m talking about in the Casablanca quote.

If you’re caught up in a storm, then take some time to get some perspective. Just looking at it from a different angle will provide the solution you’re searching for.

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.