We all accept the existence of health problems we perhaps can’t see and society is increasingly paying attention to the dangers of mental illness. High profile celebrities have come forward to speak of their own struggles with illness such as depression or PTSD.
While it is admirable that people have been brave enough to speak about their own struggles, they rarely suggest if or how they got better, so people are left to rely upon scientific rather than anecdotal findings.
A number of approaches have been identified and discussed at length in recent times, which can improve the capacity of people to cope with adversity and to avoid breakdown when confronted with stressors. This includes:
· Physical exercise and appropriate nutrition.
· Mental Stimulation.
· Adequate Rest and recovery.
Each of these are positive lifestyle choices, yet I believe that there are pillars core to our psyche that can play a critical role in helping us to overcome challenges and to improve our mental wellness.
Like many, reflection after a life changing period led to this discovery.
My own journey began at 23.34 hours on the 31st Dec 2004, when on patrol as a member of a UK military surveillance and reconnaissance unit serving in Iraq.
I cleaned my weapon after performing sentry and then went to sleep. I opened my eyes, but rather than waking in the hole I remembered being in only a moment before, I was now lying down in a hospital bed. I was in a bright room, full of doctors and nurses and I could now see a window to my righthand side and could see that I was a few floors up from the ground. Rather than being outside and under the cover of darkness, now I could see blue skies and clouds.
“Where am I”, I asked.
“Paul you have been asking the same question for two months”
It was now March 2005.
I do not remember the incident that resulted in the partial loss of a hand, an internal organ and a traumatic brain injury. Following repatriation home, over 20 hours of surgery, and 28 days in a coma, I spent two months on a traumatic care unit, and was then bedridden on what was then a public ward.
I spent my days laid there, save being pushed around in a wheel chair to get washed. I had earned that trip having pulled my catheter out in a drug-fueled state. Apparently, similar to pulling the drips out and attempting to escape my perceived capture, during an earlier test for responsiveness.
Not being able to comprehend how, what felt like five minutes before I was a high performing professional soldier, having proven my professional, mental and physical capabilities in a range of challenging environments, but now could not stand on my own two feet, use both hands or read because my eyes were not working properly, could be described as ‘life changing’. Potentially more distressing for those around me was the fact that the medical professionals were unable to explain what was wrong with my eyes, why I could not walk or perhaps of more concern, whether I would ever walk again.
On reflection, what I have in more recent years spoken to audiences and individuals about began to show itself to me in a form not previously experienced.
Resilience: ‘The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’
This description is regularly demonstrated by individuals and teams. Up to this point in my life, I had already experienced this as a team member and as a high performing athlete, prior to answering my calling to join the Royal Marines Commandos. Life as a Royal Marine demands both toughness and the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.
I had pursued further military specialisms after completing basic training at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines, which require for one to excel in these areas and to demonstrate these personal traits when operating independently.
However, when I was exposed to this new experience, I was truly alone. I did not know anyone that had walked this path before me and at this point in time, the U.K. did not have the provisions or systems in place to provide adequate care and support for wounded service personnel returning home.
The 18 months following the life-changing event on that night went past in a blur. While trying to come to terms with my acquired disabilities and the changes they demanded, I had to accept and prepare for my imminent medical discharge from something that had consumed my thoughts and aspirations since the age of 12, when I first expressed my intention to join the Royal Marines, had subsequently become my profession, provided me with a home and become my family.
A new chapter
Looking back, this chapter in my life blessed me with the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of myself. Such challenges help in the development of a determined spirit. For me, resolute in my decision not to be broken, physically, mentally or emotionally, I began my journey of setting and overcoming challenges, challenges across all areas of my life; physical, academic, professional, spiritual and emotional.
I made the decision from an early point not to be defined by my disabilities. I have maintained this mind-set and as such many that meet me are unaware of the physical challenges I carry, until they notice the claw on the end of my arm, which used to be my hand. Every time someone doesn’t notice provides me with confirmation that I approached this setback in a fashion that is appropriate to me.
I have over the past 15 years educated myself, surpassed the physical fitness levels that I had reached before my injuries, have achieved professional success and importantly, and unquestionably the greatest achievement, I have accepted my fate and found peace.
There are two key ways. One of which is drive.
The approach is simple. Each day you either get up or don’t. When you wake up and then it slowly starts to dawn on you that what the self-concept you have of yourself is no more, that you are injured, sick, tired, depressed, you ignore that internal voice and get up.
But if you get up, you are going to make today the best day you ever had. You are going to strive to improve at everything you do, from the way you walk to the bathroom, the way you brush your teeth, the choices you make, and the actions you carry out. You are going to take care of yourself by performing some physical exercise, getting some mental stimulation, eating well and getting enough sleep. However, in addition to these, there is something else that you can practice which will help you to improve and maintain your mental wellness.
Recognizing all that you have to be thankful for —even during the worst times—fosters resilience. So, in addition to dedicating time to improving yourself, its important that take the time to be thankful for what you already have. This can go a long way towards improving your personal resilience and mental wellness.
About the Author:
Paul Wood has led security teams at FTSE 100 companies and other large global corporations. He is managing director of Woodlands International and a visiting lecturer for the Department of Risk and Crisis Management at the University of Portsmouth. He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership & Management.