I Went To The U.S. Army's Resilience Boot Camp. Here's What I Learned About Mental Toughness
I used to think I was resilient. But when I contracted a mysterious illness (which turned out to be a chronic autoimmune disease) at age 28, I quickly fell apart — not only physically but also emotionally.
I couldn’t accept that the fearless journalist who had hiked Mount Everest just a few weeks earlier was the same gaunt woman who stared at me in my bathroom mirror and struggled to muster the strength to walk to the mailbox. Instead of responding like the serene Buddhist meditator I was trying to be, I cried and cursed and raised my fist at whoever was pulling the strings up there.
As the years went on, I met and marveled at the people I encountered as a journalist who had overcome serious traumas — war, natural disasters, death of a loved one, and poverty — and yet I couldn’t come to terms with my own struggles, my compromised health.
This made me feel small, incapable. So, I decided to do something about it. I set out to ask masters of resilience what had helped them through their darkest hours. Did they have a resilience code? Could I crack it?
I started my research (which turned out to be research for my book, Bouncing Forward) with the U.S. Army, because I believe that no organization has a keener interest in figuring out how to fortify people for tough experiences and how to heal trauma.
More than ever before, the U.S. Army is dealing with staggering numbers of soldiers who come back from war depressed, angry, and anxious. We are losing more soldiers to suicide than to war, so there's no ignoring the fact that the mental health of the members of our armed forces is an urgent issue.
The woman spearheading the resilience training is a retired brigadier general named Rhonda Cornum. She told me, “The time to train for a race is before the race, not after you’ve run it. You don’t start learning about first aid when a person has just collapsed in front of you. You need to learn this before a challenging event, and then re-learn, and practice.” Resilience is like a muscle that strengthens with exercise and withers when left idle.
You might think the Army’s idea of resilience was a “buck up and shut up” kind of thing. I did. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Together with resilience specialists, Rhonda initiated the now $160 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program in 2009. Every U.S. Army soldier (all of whom are required to attend the program) is trained in strategies like self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strength of character, and connection.
Rhonda has personal reasons for making a mission of resilience. As a young flight surgeon, her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in the first Iraq war. She was critically injured, taken hostage, and sexually assaulted. Her indomitable optimism and fortitude were major elements in her survival.
There's no one I'd rather have teaching me how to survive when hope seems an impossibility. Here are the major takeaways from my experience at resilience boot camp:
1. Mindfulness is a key principle.
When I attended the boot camp in Philadelphia I was surprised to watch the soldiers start the day with mindfulness meditation. Because the most common PTSD treatments — medication and psychotherapy — only work for about half of the soldiers, the Army is experimenting with alternative methods, and meditation has proven to be one of the most promising pathways to significantly reducing PTSD symptoms.
2. Honest communication and asking for help are priorities.
But even more importantly, the program calls for a tectonic shift of perception. The Army has recognized the dangers of projecting only strength and has ditched much of its old Rambo rhetoric that a soldier needs to be invincible and invulnerable. In fact, a significant part of the training consists of teaching the soldiers to communicate openly, admit fears, and reach out to seek help. Trying desperately “to get it together” can be fatal.
3. Negative thinking is not just curtailed. It’s replaced with positive thinking.
Dr. Karen Reivich, the co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project, who teaches the boot camp, likens the process of fortifying resilience to gardening: “We try to take out all the weeds — for instance, the counterproductive thinking patterns and negativity bias — and we’re also planting flowers. In resilience training, it’s not enough to have just a plot of land without weeds. That’s not a garden. You have to plant something.”
4. Catastrophic thinking takes a backseat.
Reivich considers catastrophic thinking the worst “weed.” This is the tendency to focus on the bad stuff. It’s a major culprit in the self-fulfilling nature of the downward spiral.
I felt busted, because I’m a superior catastrophizer. If we imagine the worst, we are significantly more likely to indeed make it happen. I have a wise friend who says that worrying is like praying for what you don’t want.
Karen Reivich cautions that catastrophizing is not the same as planning for contingencies; instead, “the problem with catastrophizing is that it wastes critical energy ruminating about the irrational worst-case outcomes and prevents people from taking purposeful action.”
5. Resilience is treated holistically.
Reivich and her team teach 14 core skills, such as goal setting, energy management, problem solving, and assertive communication. “When people have mastered and used these skills in their life, they are more robust in the face of stress, they can cope more effectively with problems, [and] they have tools to be able to maintain strong relationships.
So, the goal is to enhance the overall well-being and resilience of the force,” explains Reivich.
6. Common myths about resilience are debunked, and participants learn what it really means.
The resilience myths are that you should never show emotion, you must always be fully composed, and you either have resilience or you don’t. But the facts are that you learn to regulate your emotions, it’s not always pretty, and everyone can develop it.
No matter who or what controls our bodies, our food, or our freedoms, we are in charge of what matters most: our mind. Regardless of how we have been hurt, our sense of self — our strength — is ours to let wither or to cultivate.