Soldiers and first responders of all types are trained to lock things down in order to get the job done. Whether it is shutting off reactions from things seen and done overseas or steeling oneself to tell a parent about a fatal accident. They are trained to compartmentalize events and to suppress emotions. Events get packed away and forgotten for years, maybe even decades.
But this mental skillset required to live and work in ‘adrenaline mode’ comes with a cost that most people do not realize. People get a little rougher and toughened up mentally which can feel great at the time regardless of comments from co-workers, spouses, or family members. Just put the event in a little mental box and hide it away, that seems to be the practical thing to do. It is important to keep one’s image intact; this is a reality for many people I know despite public campaigns that admitting to mental / emotional wounds from the job is an honourable thing. We seem to be moving in that direction but we are not there yet. Organizational leaders still have to come to terms with their worries about degrading operational effectiveness by having members openly discuss their emotional lives and the true costs of doing the job.
When people pack events away and ignore what is going on with them emotionally, they tend to move towards machine mode - increasingly impersonal and task-focused - and less involved with people who care about them; lone wolves. Let’s face it, most organizations reward and want these 120 per centers – the no-nonsense, go-getters. But if you ask many of these men and women how they are doing emotionally, they have no idea. In fact, I know a lot of people who don’t know what that question even means. They don’t set out for things to go this way; most of them are simply following their training and values. After all, if everyone has to stop and do a mental self-check after every event, it could end up being a part-time job in itself. I think it has to be built into the training from day one, re-enforced, and practiced by everyone from top brass to the newbies. It will certainly change the way we do business at present. Otherwise, these efforts may end up being seen as window dressing.
In the meantime, it is imperative to stay connected with biological families, parents, and spouses. Find some community cause to connect with to buffer work negatives, join a veteran’s group, write down your story, draw, paint, sing – things that move you out of lock-down adrenaline mode. Now the hardest of all, be honest with the people who care when they ask: How are you?
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.