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The Winds of War

The winds of war stir up remembrances of encounters on the edge of war...and ones tragically over the edge. Whether this current terrorist/military crisis is Known or simply known, the Stress Doc sets the scene and shares some stress survival tips, especially for those at home.

Who KNOWS War?

I have not KNOWN war; I have only known war.

I have not KNOWN the blaze of live machine gun fire pounding, screeching, whizzing overhead with mortar shells, the random blasts of crazed fun house terror. No time for the fireworks flaring, gazing in the blackest night above when you're eating dirt, crawling on all fours, cradling your baby M-16, mind numb save for the point 100 yards ahead that must be reached. But I have known it.

I have not KNOWN the fear of being smoke bombed and tear gassed in troop formation. Blinding smoky clouds, not knowing where the men in front, behind and to the sides have disappeared in a choking shroud of muffled coughs and cries and teary eyed. Paralysis, for an instant, before madly reaching for the protective mask. ("And remember, soldier, it's not a gas mask!") But I have known it.

I have not KNOWN the haunting, screaming, cold sweat post-traumatic nightmares of an Air Force Pilot so enraged and deadened by endless sorties of secret killing in the Vietnam jungle. Yet, inflicting terror and drugs is all he knows to stay alive. And still, ten years later, every night, he's condemned to replay the battle scene. I have not KNOWN this, but a client has.

I have not KNOWN the heroic highs and lifeless lows of the desperate fight to halt the surprise tank invasion of a Mid East enemy. Outnumbered ten to one. Somehow repulsing, somehow surviving despite the loss of most of your buddies in their finest hour. Nor the unspoken guilt for having done so. And this communal guilt only topped by the personal shame of the crash of a jeep you were driving while bleary eyed and bloodied: you survive and two mates die. I have not KNOWN this, but a client has.

Nor have I KNOWN the silent, anxious, weepy wait of a wandering wondering mother each day and night if "The Knock" will come. The knock at the dreaded door. The dreaded door no longer a protection against "The Visit"; against the lonely visitor declaring the end of a son's patriotic duty. I have not KNOWN this, but a friend has.

Nor have I KNOWN my childhood friend, a Hollywood handsome, athletic Adonis, back from Nam, a bloated shadow speaking gibberish until, tiring of his own impostor self on the streets of Flushing, his winning, flashing smile and innocent boyish spirit frolicking in a Killing Field. Not able to comprehend the division within; nor stand it...So jumps to his death to end the madness. But, this alas, I have known.

War is hell for all who KNOW it and it's damn stressful for those who just know it.

 

Setting The Stress and War Scene

America Online and Online Psych asked me to write my thoughts on stress in wartime, especially for those miles away from the battle zone. And yet, as we know, many may be caught up in "The Twilight Zone" of war...

Six months after moving to Washington, DC in the late summer of 1990, I led a workshop for a sizable agency of the Defense Department. Like today, seemingly irresistible preparations for war were ongoing. And the swirling tension of Desert Storm was both traditional and contemporary. For example, the woman in the audience heading overseas worried for the husband and child to be left behind.

Clearly, all involved in the workshop - no matter what their station - needed to share their fears and hopes, their sense of purpose and doubt. The waiting and the uncertainty not so unlike the dark downsizing rumor clouds that still periodically rumble and sweep through Washington agencies and companies: are pink slip restructuring and rightsizing missiles about to rain down and thin out the front lines?

Wartime Stress Survival Tips

So my inclusive mind proposes a proactive strategy gleaned, over the years, from fighting seemingly overwhelming stress on a variety of personal, professional and organizational fronts. Here are some Stress Doc survival tips and strategies:

 

1. Engage in Anticipatory Grieving. For some, this will entail active protesting or rallying, pro or con. For others, the expression of anger or anxiety needs to be private, prayerful and quiet. Whatever your mode of expression, know that you may be an emotional rollercoaster racing through highs and lows of a war-charged grief cycle. Memories of previous loss - not necessarily war-related - may be stirred by our current crisis. This is not a logical experience but a psycho-logical one. And if, or when, you sense you need an ear, a shoulder, a hug, please...reach out. Or touch someone who does. And don't forget the kids. They, especially, need an adult pillar if not, also, a teddy bear, doll or pet to help manage separation stress and their runaway imagination.

2. Find Strength in Numbers. Whether it's a dear friend who lost her 20 year old daughter in a car crash or the disparate folks grappling with life who congregate weekly in my office, or the ones I encounter in cyberspace, on my AOL/Digital City-Washington "Shrink Rap and Group Chat," most people long for some group solace and support. Peers who are there or who have been there can truly be "Compassionate Friends." Despite wartime slogans and solidarity, KNOWING or, even, knowing the stress of war introduces us, even if only for a fleeting moment, to our absolutely indivisible, frightful, existential aloneness. Try not to run or hide, unless you must. Better to stand fast, then feel and share...or share and feel.

3. Adapt "The Four 'R's of Burnout Recovery. Activities that are meant to be restorative after the fact may be therapeutically applied in anticipation of the battlefront:

a. Running. Start a regimen of running, jogging, brisk walking, or endorphins pumping, jumping routine. It's not "runner's high" but a runner's calm that's biochemically induced. This chemical influx helps slow a racing mind and helps lift a sluggish mood. Also, aerobic exercise is great for grounding you when feeling vulnerable or when life feels uncertain and up in the air. There's a beginning and end point with a tangible sense of control and accomplishment.

b. Reading. In my darkest hours, I always return to reading humorous stories, for the sense of absurdity and for the endorphins. As the comedic genius, Charlie Chaplin, observed: The paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it's precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our sense of helplessness in the face of natural forces (and in order) not to go crazy. Also, laughter has been likened to "inner jogging." Laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator giving vital organs a brief but hardy internal massage.

c. Retreating. Now most associations to the word "retreat" in a military context are not so positive. However, for me the word means finding a refuge, a sanctum, a safe haven where one can tend to wounds, reflect on the current psychosocial upheavals and listen for our inner core, the emotional essence of who we are. Here one discovers or, at least, realizes the need for a higher power - a spiritual and communal connection with nature, humanity and/or the great mysterious beyond.

d. Writing. Especially in the void of wartime separation, writing (or recording a message) to loved ones becomes the vital bridge to heart and home. But writing also can be a source of self-discovery and a tool for keeping the faith. Journaling through angst and loss is a time-honored tradition. And contemporary research indicates that writing, especially when we take the time to express and analyze our emotions can help us hold on in a stormy sea of stress.

Hopefully, this war will be averted. And yet, any crisis, as the Chinese noted thousands of years ago, brings both danger and opportunity. So, I will close with words penned years ago during a double-edged turbulent period of my life: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like Spring upon Winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

With thoughts of grace and, as always...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international speaker and syndicated writer, is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ (Keyword Stress Doc or www.stressdoc.com.) For more info, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.