Last week I was approached by a teammate at the Boeing Company asking to aid our company’s initiative behind mental well-being. Eight months ago, Boeing made an essential commitment to address the mental health of its employees by promoting positive ways of managing work and life stress. Of course, I was grateful for the opportunity to help in any way, but I couldn’t do so without reflecting on my own mental health journey.
While quarantined, I’ve had conversations with friends and colleagues about the stress and anxiety we are all facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. For me, the anxiety revolves around the unknown, but I recognize that my anxiety comes and goes, and unlike many of my friends, my anxiety isn’t hurdling through the roof. It’s not because I don’t care, but rather my mind has been conditioned for highly tense situations and uncertain times from past experiences.
Eight years ago, two suicide bombers targeted my unit in the eastern province of Afghanistan. Four of my brothers left us on that day: Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, Maj. Walter Gray, Maj. Thomas Kennedy and Ragaei Abdelfattah. Over the next few years, grief and anger were a part of my daily routine, and depression set in on multiple occasions. That’s how I came to understand the critical importance of mental health. I was driving myself to the point of no return and none of my past experiences — be it learning English as a 13-year-old immigrant, or going though Ranger School — mattered because my brain was in control, and my brain was unwell. The negative thoughts, sadness, and anger guided me every day. I would not listen to anyone, and I did not see a path forward. I was injured physically, but my invisible wound was trying to kill me.
I am here today because of a network of support and a lot of persistence. In hindsight, it’s easy to diagnose what I went through as post traumatic stress (I, and many, don’t use the order “disorder” anymore because we don’t see PTS as a disorder), and I am still susceptible to it if I don’t take care of myself. But I don’t worry about the stigma because I understand that my brain was wounded and accepting that was key to my healing.
Today, the types of challenges my peers, colleagues, and family are facing might look a little different — anxiety about money and job stability, feelings of food insecurity, bouts of depression and loneliness. My goal in participating with this mental health initiative is not to say, soon enough, you’ll be a cheerful, well-fortuned optimist with no worries. No. But I do hope to alleviate the burden on your mind, and create space for more well-being.
For me, it started by being honest with myself. I do a self-assessment any time things don’t feel right. For example, I know that this week is going to be tough for me because we are going into the Memorial Day weekend. I know that I will dream and be continuously reminded of my friends that made the ultimate sacrifice. I know that I will think about the Gold Star families and how much I feel their loss. I know that feelings will rise and try to play tricks on me. But I am prepared.
1. I will talk to my wife (or family, or friends, or pets, or colleagues!) about my concerns and anxieties. I have learned that keeping things to myself is a recipe for disaster.
2. I have made a plan to exercise each day leading up to Memorial Day. To stay healthy mentally, I need to keep my body moving and catch fresh air.
3. I will welcome negative feelings, but I will not allow them to control me. I take negative feelings and use them as momentum to move forward.
4. I will smile. And when I can no longer smile, I find a moment to be alone, and breathe. Find that one positive in life and focus on it. Some call it a type of meditation, I call it Flo-time.
Our world today is very different from five months ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an incredible amount of fear, depression, anxiety, and frustration. It has changed the way we operate, both personally and professionally. But we can all regain control when these negative emotions try to take over. That's my simple unlicensed recommendation.
Medal of Honor recipient and retired Army Capt. Florent Groberg is deputy vice president and business director at the Boeing Co.
This piece first appeared on Groberg’s LinkedIn page.
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