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Making resiliency a habit instead of a skill

  • Published
  • By Jeanne Morrow, RN, LICSW Director Psychological Health
  • 446th Airlift Wing
Let’s start with a little military history:

Wars are a part of history and death are a part of wars. For the greatest part of history, when death accompanied war, in came in the form of infection and infectious diseases.

Soldiers who died during military conflicts such as the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War I were far more likely to die of cholera or dysentery than a battlefield blow. When we look at wartime deaths in retrospect we think of bullets and bombs, when it was more likely to have been gangrene or diarrhea.

The famous America poet Walt Whitman once spent time working in a field hospital during the Civil War and noted: “War is 99 parts diarrhea and 1 part glory.” He was appalled by what he saw and was shocked at the actual cause of wartime deaths.

But then something simple yet miraculous happened: By World War I, doctors realized that they could radically decrease death by infection & disease by completing three simple tasks: Wash their hands, provide clean drinking water and sterilize their equipment between use.

It may be hard for us to now imagine a time when humans did not instinctively wash their hands after using the restroom or touching human fluids or before handling food. When those ideas were first presented as a way to decrease death or disease, there were surely detractors who chose to ignore the advice or cited the financial cost of cleaning all materials between each use.

The words “I do not need to wash my hands every day!” were probably grumbled in many bars, ball games and bathrooms across the country. It is hard to identify a fatal organism when we cannot see it with our eyes. So it is difficult to get the masses to believe that some tiny microorganism can cause a miserable death.

It took time. And role modeling. And more time. But the practice of hygiene and sterilization caught on and during WW II, the ratios of death to disease vs. combat changed radically. This idea that probably started as an annoying extra step finally became a habit has saved millions of lives. But it took time. It takes time to change behavior and even longer to change attitudes. I can be told to use a skill, but how long before I accept and realize that it has resulted in a positive outcome in my life?

The idea that washing our hands decreased disease became more than a notion or a passing idea. It became a habit that we have embraced and practice routinely. If you see someone leave the restroom without washing their hands we seem them almost as a felon these days! We watch our doctors, dentists and chefs to make sure they have washed their hands before they practice on our bodies or food.


The military began teaching resiliency skills in 2009 by first teaching trainers (Master Resiliency Trainers) who then went back to their units and squadrons and taught their fellow Airmen and Soldiers.

Those trainers were taught to share “skills” such as Active Constructive Listening, Checking your Playbook and Counting Your Blessings. They are all very simple skills. That is not even in question.

And each skill can be easily taught. What we are hoping is that these skills go beyond being skills and become habit. It will take longer than 10 years.

Just like tiny deadly microorganisms, it is sometime hard for people to grasp the seriousness of taking care of our mental health. We cannot see depression on an x-ray. Unlike high blood pressure or blood sugar, there are no graphics or charts that measure the severity of our anxiety.

So we may choose to ignore it. But symptoms are there. And left untreated, they can turn into that high blood pressure or high blood sugar.

It means we have to change the way people see health as a whole. Recognizing the risks of their behaviors and the impact on their lives long term. It means changing the thought patterns of thousands of people and that takes time, role modeling and positive reinforcement. We are changing people’s reactions to stress from,
“This will never get better” to “Things will improve with time and work. I can do it.”

In some cases we are undoing childhoods where there has been poor to no positive role modeling. Where young people are taught negative thinking and negative behavior. For others, they have been taught when the going gets tough, ask your parents to bail you out. In the military, with the help of Resiliency Training, we ask our service members to be self-reliant, look for solutions and find new ways to cope with hardship.

And just like with hand-washing, it takes time for those skills to become habit.

I have spent the last eight years working with military families and service members. Not always, but sometimes they will contact me after using resiliency skills and I have sometimes kept the evaluation forms or written down quotes. These are some of the things that have been said more than once:

I wish I had learned this when I was in high school.

My spouse and I are communicating without screaming at each other.
I think I understand myself better.

I needed to hear this.

I could really relate to the situations you talked about. I am glad to hear it does not just happen to me.

Thanks for teaching me some skills for when I get angry. I do not make good decision when I am mad.

The hardest part was actually accepting that I have to make changes, instead of always thinking the other person has to change.

The last time I got really mad, I stopped and then had to laugh a little because I realized I was “using my amygdala to make decisions.”
Best training I have ever received in the military.

Thank you.

The Master Resiliency Program is the most important skill we can provide for our Airmen who are called upon to face hardship in many forms. Their military life impacts every other aspect of their lives. Let’s give the Resiliency Program the time to go from a set of skills to a set of routine habits.