Training to Thrive in a Toxic National Security Profession

February 7, 2020

Elizabeth A. Stanley, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma (Avery/Penguin Random House, 2019).

 

Most of us have been there: You are working 100-hour weeks or more in one of the agencies and or departments that work on national security, feeling depleted at best, near broken at worst. You’ve deployed to war zones, seen horrors, and worked ungodly hours. Looking back, you are not sure how you survived. You have worked hard to project a demeanor of success that does not match your inner self: trails of unkept promises to friends and family, broken relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, or other hidden shames. Stress and trauma imbue our national security enterprise.

For many in our field, long work weeks, the stakes, and where we are stationed create prolonged stressors. Anne-Marie Slaughter famously wrote about the long hours at her job as director of policy planning at the State Department and the havoc this created in her personal life. A study of the National Security Agency’s cyber operators found that lengthy hours and high stakes created levels of stress that often led to cognitive overload among other issues. Although the sakes of decision-making can obviously be higher in military contexts, the overarching national security culture retains a pervasive norm of stressful high stakes. Whether a decision-maker at the U.S. Agency of International Development puts money into one village or another can have life or death consequences for the individuals involved. Whether directly involved in combat or not, war zone environments create hypervigilance in individuals, so much so that the State Department created a new Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience in October 2016 to help those with high stress levels deployed to troubled places.

 

 

Trauma happens when our survival brain feels powerless and lacks control during a stressful experience, and can triggered by different events for each individual: a horrible situation at work, a car accident, or being exposed to a combat environment. Trauma is well-documented in military personnel, including that which induces post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even suicide. Sadly, 2018 was a record year for active duty military suicides, tied with the next highest year, 2012 (we do not yet have last year’s figures). What is less known is that 89 percent of U.S. adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. The percentage of men who develop PTSD is between 4 and 6 percent. For women, it is 10 to 13 percent. The rates are three times higher for men exposed to combat or women who are sexually victimized. For U.S. government civilians working in war zones, the rates of trauma and potential PTSD are higher than for the general civilian population, although solid statistics are difficult to obtain and getting these civilians help is still a struggle. A 2007 State Department report indicated that seventeen percent of foreign services officers in Iraq displayed PTSD symptoms. And the cycle of broken individuals in our field is self-perpetuating: Many foreign service officers, for instance, do not seek help, fearing for their security clearances since PTSD is seen as taboo.

This chronic stress and trauma affect not only the individuals involved, but also our institutions; and, accordingly, our ability to achieve national security objectives. According to the American Psychological Association Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third of U.S. employees report chronic work stress, with the American Institute of Stress estimating that stress costs U.S. employers over $300 billion per year in lost days, retention problems, reduced productivity, and so on. For a variety of reasons, but clearly including long hours, stress, and time away from family, the average political appointee lasts only about two years (although numbers are hard to come by, as no one agency has oversight responsibilities for tracking such numbers). Turnover amongst the civil service workforce is also high, with the State Department losing 9 percent of its civil service and 20 percent of its staff with five to nine years of service in just two years (2016 to 2018). The Office of the Secretary of Defense saw a 24 percent drop in staff with the same experience level during the same time period. And among those who stay in, decision-making is impaired in high stress environments, as a study on military decision making showed.

Luckily, there is a way out of this stress and trauma toxicity. It is brought to us by Elizabeth A. Stanley in a new book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recovery from Trauma. Stanley is one of us: an Army veteran and international security professor who used her own experience with stress and trauma to create a training regimen for people to re-regulate themselves even in toxic environments. I value her findings so highly that I got involved: I served on the board of a non-profit she founded to teach these techniques in high-stress settings. The book’s title refers to our window of tolerance to stress arousal, which is unique to each of us and adversely affected by chronic stress and trauma without enough recovery. Unfortunately, if we try to get any help for our overstressed or traumatized selves at all, we tend to focus on thinking-brain-dominant interventions like cognitive therapy or positive reframing. These “top-down” techniques start with our conscious thinking. But, as Stanley explains, recovery after stress and trauma are not controlled by the thinking brain, but by the survival brain, which means these common strategies are incomplete. For this reason, she argues that we need to use “bottom-up” strategies that include our survival brain and target the nervous system and body.

This groundbreaking book is presented in three parts. The first part explains the culture that underpins our “suck it up and drive on” mentality, which ultimately disconnects our thinking brain from our survival brain, nervous system, and body. It’s this disconnect that perpetuates so many of our coping strategies for stress and trauma, which are ultimately ineffective. The second part presents the science behind the window: how we initially wire it, how it can be narrowed over time, and why widening the window is necessary. Part two is critical for our thinking brains to appreciate the third part of the book, which explores the training practices for widening the window itself.

Explaining the problem (part one) and the science behind her problem diagnosis and solution (part two) will resonate with national security professionals. Although making it clear that she is not a clinician or a neuroscientist, the author dives into empirical and experimental research from a variety of fields. That said, she does so using her personal stories, to include making herself physically ill and even going blind for a period of time trying to maintain high performance after many traumatic events, including a near-death experience while deployed to Bosnia, sexual assault, and being deployed to combat zones. She also tells us the stories of the men and women she’s trained. By combining her deep understanding of this wide-ranging literature on stress, trauma, resilience, decision-making, and performance enhancement with many relatable anecdotes, she helps the reader stay engaged rather than overwhelmed.

Stanley’s resilience training program, the subject of much of the third part of the book, is as much about optimizing performance as dealing effectively with stress and trauma. Through a variety of accessible practices, and the context to understand how and why these practices work, Stanley points the way for national security professionals to thrive as much internally as they do externally in their professional lives. As Stanley points out throughout the book, there is no “quick fix” to our inner war, but there is a path towards training ourselves to feel more whole and better able to make good decisions in suboptimal conditions.

The importance of working on ourselves, even in a time-compressed environment, is stressed in the book’s final chapter, which also lays out why senior leaders (or anyone involved in complex decision-making) need to make the time for training their mind and body. Without prioritizing self-care, a leader’s decision-making ability suffers. More importantly, perhaps, when leaders become dysregulated, their stress and emotions get conveyed to everyone around them, making the entire group less effective. The cumulative effect leads to less effective decisions that undermine our national security interests.

This book should be read by all national security professionals desiring a sustainable, productive career in a high-octane environment. Indeed, Stanley has trained some of the top national security professionals using some of the same techniques laid out in this book. Rarely does a book come along that is readable, yet grounded in scientific research, that has the ability to literally change lives; not only of national security leaders, but of those for whom they make decisions. This is one such book.

 

 

Dr. Tammy S. Schultz (@TammySSchultz) is a professor of strategic studies and the director of national security at the Marine Corps War College. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense or the Marine Corps.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Lance Cpl. Ryan Hageali)