Commentary

What a combat veteran taught me about handling stress

Unlike a lot of his friends, my brother, Tom, made it home from war in one piece. He’d taken shrapnel to the head and was in life-threatening situations every day for a solid year, but when he stepped back onto American soil, his body was intact.

His mind and heart were a different story. His nervous system had been completely rewired in order to survive in a combat zone, and his emotions were no different. In order to function, Tom had to remain unaffected by everyday tragedies like his platoon sergeant getting killed in action or his squad leader getting killed just one week later.

When he got home, all the stress and moral confusion began clawing at him from the inside. All of the feelings he’d pushed down started showing up as depression, anxiety, grief, shame, and sorrow for the things he’d seen and done during war.

Desperate for stress relief

Tom tried everything to lower his stress levels, but nothing worked. Not even cognitive-behavioral therapy, Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), antidepressants, drugs or alcohol. The stress was killing him, and Tom thought regularly about taking his own life.

Then, on a 2,700-mile walk across the country with a fellow veteran, Tom discovered the power of meditation for stress relief. Where standard methods failed, meditation worked. He learned breathing exercises that made him feel less stressed, more present, and better equipped to handle strong emotions and memories of war.

An unexpected antidote to post-traumatic stress

Today, Tom is a completely different person. Meditation has helped him live a normal life without being tortured by painful memories. It helps him get through the day.

But it’s also helped him process what happened in Iraq and empowered him to take responsibility for his own healing. Meditation created enough space and distance for him to look at painful memories, accept what happened, and forgive himself and others.

But will it work for me?

Tom convinced me to try meditation not as a quick fix for stress (though it is), but as a way to understand what was causing my stress in the first place.

I learned that too much stress is a warning signal from our body and mind. It’s a way for our subconscious to communicate with our conscious mind and say “Hey! Something’s off here. Let’s take a look at it and see what we need to do about it.”

Don’t get me wrong — meditation feels really good, too. When I sit and close my eyes, and focus on my breath, it’s not long before I slip into a state of total relaxation. Sometimes, relaxation even turns into joy.

I notice that I feel lighter throughout the day, more playful with my kids, and less worried about what the future holds. Things that used to stress me out at work feel more like little annoyances that really don’t matter all that much.

Before meditation, I used to cover up stressful feelings with any number of vices — binging on Netflix, drinking, eating bad food, or mindlessly consuming content on my phone. But the stress never went away, because I hadn’t uncovered its root cause.

Meditation is one way to figure out what’s causing the stress. It’s how you discover things like “Oh! I actually hate this job,” or “This marriage isn’t working for me.” It’s also how you discover what actions to take to change that stressful situation.

What meditation really is (and isn’t)

Meditation doesn’t have to involve a mantra (though it can) or any particular belief system (though it can). Meditation doesn’t mean stopping your thoughts. Instead, it means observing your thoughts and letting them come and go without judgment.

Meditation can be as simple as sitting still and noticing your breath, and as complex as performing patterned breathing exercises or physical poses (yoga).

But however you do it, meditation is a way to check in with yourself and allow your mind, body, and nervous system to ground itself back into the present moment.

And it’s being present — not lost in the past or the imagined future — that makes each moment of your day more impactful and less stressful.

Make it work for you: Top 3 recommendations

Try it for two minutes — You don’t need to carve out hours of time to reap the benefits of meditation. Duck into the bathroom at work, set your alarm a few minutes early in the morning, or take a five-minute break between meetings or appointments.

Make it a daily habit — You’ll likely feel less stressed after just a few minutes of sitting still and breathing. But meditation has long-term impacts you’ll feel in every area of your life. Get the most out of this practice by making it a habit and discipline that you do every day.

Start with alternate nostril breathing — The next time you find yourself stressed at work or at home, allow yourself two minutes to find a quiet place. Sit down wherever's comfortable (no, you don't have to sit on the floor in lotus pose — a chair is fine!). Close your eyes.

Then, try this simple exercise:

  • Take a long, deep breath in, then let it out
  • Cover your right nostril with your thumb, and inhale through your left nostril.
  • Cover your left nostril with your index finger, and exhale through your right nostril.
  • Cover your right nostril with your thumb, and repeat the sequence.
  • Repeat for two minutes, alternating covering the right and left nostrils.

Stress relief isn’t about temporarily feeling better. It’s not about reducing stress just so you can get more done or be more productive. True stress relief is about alleviating symptoms so you can figure out what’s causing those symptoms in the first place.

And to do that, you have to be still enough, and quiet enough, to listen for the answers you need.

Rebecca Anne Nguyen is the author of “Where War Ends: A Combat Veteran’s 2,700 Mile Journey to Heal” with her brother, Tom Voss.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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