How To Protect Your Mental Wellbeing As A Forces Spouse

You are good enough. You are doing your best. It isn’t perfect but it is good enough.

I wish I could make you believe that. It is true but I have been to enough coffee mornings and enough therapy sessions to know that, although you might thank me for my kind words, they won’t really sink in. You won’t FEEL them.

I’m writing this blog post as a Navy wife, mum to two toddlers and a Clinical Psychologist. I wanted to write it because I am tired of hearing incredible people telling me that they don’t feel “as good as” their civilian friends or colleagues because they haven’t had a straightforward career path. Clients and friends within our community tell me that they feel guilt about staying at home with their children, guilt about going to work, guilt about staying in one place, guilt about moving frequently and guilt about everything in between.

As a psychologist I use Compassion Focussed Therapy to help my clients understand why they struggle mentally with some of the things that happen in their lives. I help them to develop real compassion for themselves and others so that when the s***t hits the fan they can deal with it without being paralysed by shame, anxiety, depression or traumatic memories.

CFT also gets me through the ridiculous uncertainty of having a husband in the services. It has helped me to weather “losing my NHS career” twice, setting up in private practice twice, coping with a very unwell newborn in a city I don’t know (with a stroppy 17 month old in tow) and most recently being locked down on my own during an international pandemic with two toddlers and a business to run. It also helps me to avoid killing my husband when he is here.

CFT is about helping you to FEEL that you are good enough, that you (and others) are doing your best in circumstances that you can’t control and that you deserve a good quality of life. It is also about taking action to help yourself and others to have the best quality of life possible. It teaches us to use strong emotions to guide us rather than letting them paralyse us.

Whether or not you consider yourself “depressed”, “anxious” or “traumatised” we all need that right?

Your tricky mind

First I want to explain to you exactly why you doubt yourself and your choices constantly. Why you feel so unsure that you have anything to offer and why the thought of working and  not working are both terrifying in equal measures.

Your brain and body were designed to keep you alive. The brain evolved over time meaning that some bits are older than others. The oldest bits are the bits that create the strong “threat response” in us that we sometimes call fight/flight/freeze and our urges to eat, sleep and have sex.  This is a very rapid system in the brain that is designed to respond lightning fast to immediate threats to our lives. It sparks big reactions in our bodies that enable us to run away, fight or play dead when faced with a predator.

More recently, we also developed parts of our brain that crave connection and safety in groups and are obsessed with social hierarchy and belonging. This is often called the mammalian part of the brain as we have this in common with other pack animals.

On top of all that we also have a part of the brain that is unique to humans. This part of the brain is amazing at imagining and planning and making sense of a situation when there is limited information. It also allows us to tell stories to ourselves and others. This part of the brain gives us a huge advantage over other animals but it also enables us to become traumatised more easily than most animals as we have the ability to replay situations in our mind, dwell on things that are troubling us and think about the worst case scenario.

Problems often arise for us because the older parts of the brain don’t know anything about the newer parts. The old brain responds to the stuff the new brain imagines in exactly the same way that it would to something happening in real life. This can result in loops. It is TRICKY.

Let’s consider some examples that might be relevant to our lives right now. 

Uncertainty: the threat you can’t get away from

I’m writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when we are facing an invisible threat to our physical wellbeing and the fabric of our society. No one knows whether our government have got the right strategy. No one knows whether this virus is on its way out or just having a rest.

On top of that, many of US don’t know when our partners are coming home from active service. Whether house moves are going ahead. Where our kids will be going to school in September (if they go back).

But, despite all of this uncertainty, we are all being encouraged to go back to work and to send our kids to school. And many of us will need to do just that to pay the bills.

The ancient part of your brain is very simple. It simply asks itself, am I safe or unsafe? Now, in the context of the media headlines, social media attention and all of that uncertainty your brain has most likely decided “unsafe.” This means it is likely to be pumping out some of the hormones and other physical changes associated with the threat response. These physical responses are designed to last for short periods, long enough for you to run away, fight to the death or hide. Not 13 weeks of lockdown. The effects of being stuck in a threat response for a long period of time include difficulty concentrating, problems in relationships, low mood, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and digesting food (and many more). Because the threat we are facing is invisible our old brains won’t know when to switch off the threat system.

On top of that, there is likely to be a loop happening between the old and new brain. When there is something scary on the news, like an image of someone very unwell our old brain gives us a hit of the threat response because in the old days if you saw someone very unwell you might need to run towards them to help them or run away from them to avoid whatever attacked them. The new brain then detects this response and reacts as though this is evidence that there is an immediate threat by going in to action planning mode, imagining the awful worst case scenarios in order to help us avoid them. This then tricks the old brain into responding as though these worst case scenarios were really happening with MORE threat response. And it carries on like this in a vicious cycle.

As the threat response is designed to help us scan for danger and it fills us full of energy to respond physically to threats it is not a very useful state to be in when you want to concentrate on paperwork. It is very hard to work or apply for jobs when you feel like that. Thanks tricky brain!

Social rejection and shame

On top of this there is a high chance that we are experiencing more shame than usual right now.

In our evolutionary past the survival of ourselves and our young would have been dependent on us maintaining a decent position in the pack. We are therefore programmed to experience shame when we sense we have done something others disapprove of. This is often hard for us as military spouses as we can face real discrimination in the work place and may find ourselves with holes in our CVs that make us feel “less than” others when it comes to work, applying for jobs or starting a business.

In the face of this pandemic there are also many new ways to compare yourself unfavourably to others, are you homeschooling or have you given up? Are you a mask wearer or not? Are you washing your hands enough? Giving enough distance to others? Have you gone back to work?

 

Shame, unpleasant though it is, actually served a purpose back in the day. When we feel ashamed our body language becomes small and submissive and that might just have got us back in the good books of the pack we needed to protect us and our young.

Shame has a pretty cosy relationship with depression and there is also an evolutionary explanation for that. If we were feeling shame frequently it was probably because we were permanently out of favour with the pack and therefore were likely to be lacking in muscle to protect us. It therefore made sense for our brains to tell us to stay quiet, remain awake and never leave the cave. That sounds a lot like the insomnia, lack of motivation and low self confidence that are often associated with “depression”. Shame also impacts on the way we think. We often start to think about ourselves, the world and others in very negative ways which make it harder for us to take any action.

Shame is likely to be a large part of why many of us will be struggling with returning to work, or even starting a new business in the wake of this pandemic, or even after a new posting. Allowed to run riot, shame can be a destructive emotion, making us withdraw from anyone who could help us and making our world so small we can’t see anything worth living for.

Lack of connection, support and depression

As military spouses it is highly likely that we will find ourselves in situations where we have very limited access to real social support. Often our communities can be very good at offering a helping hand if we reach out but that can be hard to do when you are feeling low and it isn’t a substitute for a deep and meaningful with a close friend who has known you since childhood.

COVID-19 has made this even more challenging. While video and talking on the phone can be very valuable the mammalian part of the brain craves and expects physical contact, especially when we are distressed and Zoom cannot provide this.

When your mind perceives that you do not have the support of the pack around you it responds to this as a threat because our ancestors would have died without the support of the group. Imagine what would have happened to a cave man that broke his leg if he had not friends to carry him back to the cave?

The mind may respond by triggering the shame and/or depression response described above to try and help you keep safe and get back into the good books of your pack or it may send some extra anxiety your way to keep you on your guard for predators. It is important to recognise that it is doing this to try and help you. Unfortunately all of these responses can make it very hard when we need to function well in or daily lives.

Helping yourself

I’m aware that all of this has sounded very depressing so far. But fear not we are not doomed. Now we know that our responses are completely natural and understandable in the light of forces life and the pandemic we can start to develop compassion for ourselves and others.

If we are able to meet life’s challenges with compassion we can soothe ourselves and take action that is in line with our values in life, rather than just reacting to our strong emotions.

Often, we have not spent much time in our lives building our compassion skills. Our culture places a lot of emphasis on “striving” and achieving which means that many of us have spent most of our lives either trying to get more of what we want or protecting ourselves from threats and we have not spent much time learning how to simply be present, rest, digest and connect with ourselves and others. In order to be truly compassionate we need to develop these skills.

Get started today

Breathing – Your breath is key to accessing your ability to soothe yourself. It links to the part of your nervous system that communicates to your brain and body that you are safe and allows your heart and other organs to return to normal functionality after a threat. Try this soothing breathing rhythm and see how you feel. You can adjust it until it is comfortable for you.

Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 6

Ideally reducing the speed of your breath so you are only breathing around 5 times in a minute has been shown in research studies to give the nervous system the best chance to return to normal. If you can’t manage that don’t worry, it is a skill and practicing will give you all the benefits.

Visualising – We can use the power of our imagination to help activate our soothing system. In this recording I guide you through finding a calm place that you can access when you need to feel safe and supported. As you practice this regularly you will find that your ability to FEEL the safety of your calm place improves. It does not matter at all if you never get a strong image. It is the feelings we are paying attention to.

I hope that this article has helped you to make sense of why you might be struggling at the moment and what you can do to help yourself. Once you have mastered the strategies above there are many more and you can go a lot deeper into fostering compassion in your life. Please contact me to book an online session if you would like some 1:1 help with this. I also have many more blog posts and resources that you might find helpful on my site for parents www.parents.drrosie.co.uk

Links:

Free calm place visualisation: https://fantastic-painter-8998.ck.page/8d0d1b4072

Parents site with free blog and information about online therapy: https://parents.drrosie.co.uk

Contact me on: rosie@drrosie.co.uk

With huge thanks to Dr Rosie for this blog.


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