The America’s military personnel have served in multiple, lengthy combat deployments and operations across the globe, which has led to a development of stress conditions among the service men and women. The stress may stem from uncertainty over deployment time, culture shock, anxiety over physical injury or death, environmental challenges, such as geographical features or extreme climates, difficult living conditions, and separation from family and friends. The prevention of the outlined deleterious outcomes of military service is needed, which necessitates an examination of the relevance of military resilience. Enhanced understanding of military resilience and its relation to spirituality may inform the institution of interventions suitable to military personnel and their families.
Spiritual beliefs may foster resilience and well-being, as well as yield to enhanced military readiness and performance. Spirituality moderates military resilience in the face of combat exposure or deployment, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. In the current paper, military resilience is conceptualized as both a process and a trait are revolving around the interactive influence of psychological characteristics in the context of adversity, stress or trauma. The paper examines the relationship between military resilience and spirituality, and highlights key constructs of spirituality and their connection to military resilience and well-being. The paper confirms that positive emotions improve military resilience directly and indirectly via the mediation role of adaptive coping strategies.
Keywords: military resilience, spirituality, religious practices, positive emotions, trauma, stress
In the last few decades, the US military forces have implemented resilience training programs intended to make military members emotionally resilient, and equip them with skills to cope with trauma and stress. Military resilience is associated with career and personal success and reduced mental health symptoms. Weak resilience, on the other hand, is linked to heightened mental health symptoms and engagement in high-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse (Hufford, Fritts, & Rhodes, 2010). According to Yeung and Martin (2013), over a third of the military troops deployed overseas report experiencing mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or traumatic brain injury. In addition, the deployments have been accompanied by increased cases of suicides caused by combat stress and PTSD (Yeung & Martin, 2013).
The paper explores the connection between military resilience, spirituality, and positive emotions. The current paper is guided by the research question: what is the connection between spirituality, religion, and resilience among the US military personnel? The paper concludes that healthy spirituality is connected to improvements in both military resilience and positive emotions, and military resilience has a reciprocal influence on positive emotions. Consequently, military resilience is not merely a trait that individuals either possess or lack. On contrary, resilience encapsulates thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that can be cultivated, developed, and learned.
Recently, the Department of Defense (DoD) has implemented several programs, and strategies intended to foster psychological resilience among the military service members. The need for military resilience has formed the US Army initiative to look into means of building a total force that has attained total fitness. A total force is usually ready, healthy, and resilient, able to confront the challenges, and surmount the threats (Hufford, Fritts, & Rhodes, 2010). The US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) model highlights 8 domains critical to the effective functioning of a soldier. The domains are divided into two categories: mind-centric and body-centric components. The mind-centric category features aspects, such as psychological, spiritual, behavioral, and social and family, while body-centric domain comprises of environmental, physical, nutritional, and medical components (Hufford, Fritts, & Rhodes, 2010).
Equally significant is the balance that the soldier enjoys from various spheres, such as organization, family, and community (Pigeon, 2013). According to Hufford, Fritts, and Rhodes (2010), the spiritual domain is pertinent to aiding soldier improve self-awareness by positively reframing life stressors, overcoming obstacles, and enhancing the expectancy of successes. The US Army utilizes the notion of “bouncing back” in the course of resilience training efforts linked to the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) programs (Hourani et al., 2012). The CSF model broadens the conventional conceptualization of resilience by looking beyond the psychological realm to highlight the mind-body connection and the inter-linkage of each of the eight domains (Hourani et al., 2012).
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Major General Robert Dees’ book on Resilient Warriors provides information on how to help and give hope to military personnel and veterans recovering from combat trauma, adversities, or life-changing events. The spiritual principles of resilience form the basis of the management of the most-demanding traumatic events with increased confidence and guarantee of restoration (Dees, 2011). Dees utilizes the term resilience to describe “bouncing back” or overcoming adversities (2011). Resilience is required for individuals operating in any environment in which uncertainty and conflicts pervade. According to Dees, resilience represents the capacity to become better rather than bitter, bend rather than break, to recover to full function and potential following an internal or external adversity, or simply bounce back (2011). Dees outlines the concepts of Posttraumatic Growth and Resilience Life Cycle covering positive ways of investing in resilience before (“building bounce”), during (“weathering the storm”), and after (“bouncing back”) it (2011).
Definition of Terms
Resilience of human spirit represents the capability to reveal the best in self in the worst times. The paper adopts the Air Force definition of resilience, in which it is delineated as the capability to withstand stressful circumstances, recover, and grow despite the increasing adversities, pressures, or a shift in equilibrium (Dees, 2011). The two main fundamental conditions are implied in the given construct: (1) exposure to momentous threat or severe adversity, and (2) the attainment of positive adaptation regardless of the adversities.
The Air Force defines spiritual fitness as the capacity to observe beliefs, values or principles critical to the success of military and family life (Pigeon, 2013). As a result, spiritual fitness does not necessitate any level of religiosity or supernatural belief. However, the concept is largely synonymous with faith. Spiritual fitness can be manifested as the belief in transcendent purpose and meaning, moral code, altruism, religiosity, and subscription to a community with analogous values. Self-transcendence represents the notion that there exists something beyond the individual that can represent the interdependence and interconnectedness of humanity, the higher being, or the natural world (Hufford, Fritts, & Rhodes, 2010).
Coping represents the process that incorporates attempts to sustain a balance between normal functioning, while adjusting to particular demands and conditions.
Crisis represents a disturbance in the equilibrium expressed in overpowering or pressure that is so great, or a shift that is so acute that the normal functioning is immobilized, blocked or incapacitated.
The exploration of the factors that contribute to strong adaptive outcomes in regard to adversity has an extended history. The early investigations focused on maladaptive behavior, but later research on resilience has broadened to encompass numerous other negative conditions, including socioeconomic disadvantage, urban poverty, and community violence. In the last two decades, the focus of research has shifted from the identification of protective factors to comprehending the underpinning protective processes. Instead of merely exploring which subject, environmental, and familial factors are engaged in resilience, researchers are increasingly seeking to comprehend how such attributes may yield positive outcomes. Recent research has cited three sets of factors considered pertinent to the development of resilience: (1) factors of the subjects themselves, (2) attributes linked to families, and (3) attributes of the wider social environments (Folkman, 2011).
Throughout lives of military service men and women, they, whether active or retired, may undergo multiple trials and tribulations (Hourani et al., 2012). The adversities-filled phases of life may provide enriching opportunities for development and personal growth, but may also result in crisis-linked stressors (Dees, 2011). The manner, in which the military personnel respond to such circumstances, is as distinct as the trauma or stressors themselves. Some people may find it easier to internalize their feelings of stress and distress, but others may be unable to contain their resentment and frustrations, and may become hostile toward others. Dees contends that the most crucial step for resiliency is developing spiritual strength (2011). When an individual is recovering from trauma and stress, the person can either become better, or fail and become bitter. Largely, recovering from physical trauma and stress is less complicated relative to recovering from needs of the spiritual dimension. The better that military personnel “bounce,” the better and more effective they are in living their lives and helping others (Dees, 2011).
Resilience and spirituality are human realities that are difficult to define and grasp sufficiently. Spirituality is essentially a universal phenomenon and an intrinsic element of human nature that unravels as the individual pursues transcendence, purpose, and meaning in life. According to Pigeon (2013), resilience mirrors the capacity to confront and negotiate stressful life events, difficulties and adversities, and traumatic experiences, both during deployment and reintegration into the civilian life. Being resilient implies that the person possesses the human capability to adapt in case of tragedy, adversity, trauma, hardship, and constant life stressors (Miller, 2012). Military resilience, as a constituent of personality, develops and shifts over time via ongoing experiences with the social and physical environment.
Factors Impacting on Military Resilience
Empirical research indicates that spirituality and religiosity fosters healthy development, improves coping mechanisms, and yields positive outcomes in mental health, as well as psychological well-being. The four constructs relevant to spiritual fitness include: (a) spiritual worldview, (b) spiritual practices or personal religious and rituals, (c) support from spiritual community, and (d) spiritual coping (Yeung & Martin, 2013). The spiritual fitness constructs are connected to diverse aspects of well-being, including physical and mental health, and quality of life. Religion aids in the process of coping by: (a) offering meaning to life, (b) providing the individuals with an enhanced sense of control over situations, and (c) building sense-esteem. Religious beliefs function as a resource for coping, and serve as a buffer against stressors (Dees, 2011).
Protective factors, which may reside within the individual’s personality, may ameliorate the challenges caused by adversity, threats, trauma or stress (Miller, 2012). The risk and protective factors may mirror internal attributes of the individual or the external characteristics linked to the family, community, and school environments. It can be argued that resilience largely depends on relationships or social ties to others. The individual-level factors that foster resilience include positive coping, altruism, positive thinking, realism, physical fitness, and behavioral control. Positive coping represents the process of managing taxing circumstances by making all possible to solve interpersonal and personal problems. Individuals who are flexible, enthusiastic, hopeful, optimistic, and alert report improved resilience in the face of calamities (Folkman, 2011). Positive thinking helps individuals positively restructure, reframe, and refocus the mind so that to make sense of circumstances (Kent, Davis, & Reich, 2014).
Therapists and social scientists are starting to acknowledge the significant and powerful role that religion and spirituality play in individual functioning. Involvement in religious activities helps minimize emotional distress. Given the wide range of stressors that military members face, an examination of resiliency in regard to adversity and the contributions of religion and spirituality to the process are appropriate and necessary. Several theories provide perspectives on the ability of military service men and women and veterans to show resilience in connection to adversities. The cognitive-relational theory highlights the persistent and reciprocal nature of the interaction between the individual and the environment. The individual must appraise his or her competence, social support, and material or related resources so that to readapt to the situations and reestablish equilibrium between the environment and individual (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013).
Symbolic Interactionism theory relates to the ways in which individuals think about and utilize categories to structure their experience and analysis of the world. The theory facilitates analysis of how individuals make sense of their environment, adapt, and show resilience in connection to the crisis events (Simmons & Yoder, 2013). Psychological resilience is not merely an individual personality trait. On contrary, resilience involves interaction between self and others, the individual’s life experiences, and life context.
The broaden-and-build theory explains the function and form of a positive emotions subset, including interest, joy, and contentment. The theory describes the short-term impacts of positive emotions on motivation, cognition, attention, and physiological responses, and outlines how the transient impacts generate long-term alterations in individuals’ personal resources. The theory posits that positive emotions broaden the range of coping strategies, and thus, reinforce the individual’s resilience against stress and anxiety (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013). Adverse emotions narrow a momentary thought-action repertoire of a person by triggering fight-to-flight reaction, in which the individual behaves in a certain way, such as escape when frightened or attack when angry. Positive emotions (such as interest, joy, and contentment) widen a person’s thought-action repertoire by broadening the collection of cognitions and behavior (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013).
The critiques provided the information stating that the construct of resilience focuses on the ambiguities in definitions and central terminology, and the diversity in risks experienced and competence attained by individuals is perceived as resilient. The critique on the theories of resilience also focuses on the volatility of resilience phenomenon and concerns relating to the efficacy of the resilience as a theoretical construct (Simmons & Yoder, 2013). However, the construct of resilience gives numerous opportunities in enhancing the understanding of processes influencing at-risk individuals.
The main factors of military resilience include: mental (adaptability, positive thinking, and awareness), physical (nutrition, endurance, and recovery), social (social support, communication, and family connectedness), and spiritual (perseverance, core values, purpose, and perspective) aspects (Simmons & Yoder, 2013). Spirituality literature features a conceptualization of a spiritual worldview that encompasses beliefs in transcendent meaning and purpose, but is not limited to organized religious beliefs. Religion and spirituality positively correlate with effective stress management. Spirituality and religion play a central role in fostering resiliency (Miller, 2012).
Spirituality and religion provide people’s sense of meaning and purpose, and act as a resource in confronting life challenges. Religious or spiritual coping is successful, since it provides a response to the “challenges of human insufficiency” (Dees, 2011). In cases where individuals are pushed beyond the perimeters of their resources and recognize their elementary vulnerability, religion provides some solutions in the form of spiritual support, rationalizations for puzzling and difficult life events, and a sense of control (Miller, 2012). Although, the term “resilience” does not feature in the Bible, the notion of being strong in the Lord is widespread. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul profoundly notes that Christians are “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4: 7-9 New King James Version). Christians are urged to be resilient, since “…Weeping may endure for a night. But joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).
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Spirituality reinforces resiliency by fostering a sense of meaning of life, hope, and social support in a spiritual community (Miller, 2012). Spiritual beliefs are pertinent to shaping most people’s worldview, and must be incorporated or accounted for in therapy. People who report high spiritual health register greater coping skills relative to those individuals with low or no spiritual practices. Spiritually fit individuals tend to manifest a stronger self-esteem, improved coping skills, and solid relationships (Simmons & Yoder, 2013). Religious and spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation, spiritual rituals, and mindfulness, have a therapeutic value in treatment of depression and anxiety (Pigeon, 2013).
The efficacy of religious coping may be reflected in an interaction with spiritual beliefs and the level to which the person enjoys control over the stressful situation. Dees notes that an individual who believes in a benevolent and all-powerful God may handle stressors better, especially those he or she believes to be out of control (2011). For instance, Christians may rely on Bible teachings and become resilient and able to “overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” through Christ (Rom. 8: 37).
Religious and spiritual beliefs, engagement, and practices also provide protective effects by supplying a sense of identity and purpose. However, spirituality and religion can minimize resiliency, if it leads to demoralization, such as when the individual perceives himself or herself as unworthy or abandoned. In some cases, the components shaping the worldview of the service men and women, such as faith and patriotism, may be in conflict, which generates doubt and uncertainty on the right course of action. Such experiences may result in enduring moral and spiritual questions leading to loss of faith, heightened self-blame and guilt, and alienation from family and colleagues. Feelings of loneliness and depression can yield the sense of abandonment and erosion of faith in the Supernatural being, diminished engagement in spiritual or religious activities, changes in belief, loss of purpose and meaning for living. Negative thoughts or attributions on God, such as feelings of abandonment, punishment, or anger may lead to poor clinical outcomes (poor physical and mental health).
Spirituality and Positive Emotions
Positive emotions enhance physical health and well-being, as well as facilitate human improvement. Positive emotions facilitate approach behavior, and allow individuals to transform themselves by becoming more knowledgeable, creative, resilient, socially integrated, and healthy. High-resilient people are proactive and constantly cultivate positive emotionality by strategically triggering positive emotions via use of humor, optimistic thinking, and relaxation techniques (Tugade, Shiota, & Kirby, 2014). The divergences in psychological resilience account for the marked differential in emotional responses to stress. Indeed, positive emotionality is a pertinent component of psychological resilience. Positive emotions can be conceived as by-products of resilient modes of thinking. Positive emotions reinforce the individual’s capacity to beat the odds, bounce back, turn physical and emotional pain into something positive, and progress from being a victim to a survivor (Dees, 2011).
Happiness, which constitutes a fusion of coping resources, positive emotions, and life satisfaction, predicts desirable life outcomes in most domains. The broaden-and-build theory implies that it occurs due to the fact that positive emotions aid individuals to build enduring resources. Positive emotions propel increased levels of ego-resilience in the future (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013). Ego-resilience also derives its impacts partly by triggering positive emotions. Individual who enjoy high ego-resilience register more positive emotions compared to their less resilient peers when encountering stressors (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013). The variation in positive emotions tends to account for the capacity to rebound in the face of stress or adversity, defend against depression, and sustain personal growth and development (Lopez & Snyder, 2011).
The most evident mechanism via which spirituality may improve well-being is through its intentional and explicit cultivation of positive emotions. Religiosity and spirituality exert influence on both spirituality and well-being by mediating positive emotions (Lopez & Snyder, 2011). Some of the positive emotions that form spirituality include trust (faith), compassion, love (attachment), awe, gratitude, hope, joy, and forgiveness. Positive emotions within a religious/spiritual context are mediated by self-transcendent emotions, such as gratitude, peace, love, and awe (Lopez & Snyder, 2011).
Spirituality and Trauma
Both spirituality and trauma are intertwined. People’s spiritual and religious beliefs and practices can function as a source of strength and support in times of adversity. People who are religious turn to religion for support, comfort, and hope. Christians gain spiritual fitness by praying, reading the Bible, engaging in Christian Worship, fasting, and going on pilgrimages (Pigeon, 2013). For Christians, trials and tribulations form a part of life, since Jesus told his disciples that “in the world you will have tribulation…” (Jn. 16: 33). Hence, the question is not if, but when the adversity or trauma manifests or becomes a reality (Dees, 2011). Adversity forms part of the human condition and people must be ready to fight, sustain “injuries,” and bounce back, since that is what warriors do (Dees, 2011).
Given the possible impacts of spirituality and religious beliefs on coping, the exploration of spirituality role in promoting resilience in trauma survivors may advance people’s understanding of human adaptation to trauma. Spirituality and religiousness are strongly linked to a personal quest for comprehending questions on life and meaning. Constructing narratives grounded in healthy perspectives may foster the integration of traumatic sensorial fragments in a new cognitive synthesis, which, in turn, minimizes post-traumatic symptoms (Hourani et al., 2012). Trauma can generate positive and adverse effects on the perceptions and spiritual experiences of individuals (Hourani et al., 2012).
Trauma can make people develop an appreciation of life, increased closeness to God, and greater sense of purpose and meaning in life. Some of the means by which spiritual fitness shapes the recovery trajectory for the survivors of traumatic events include reduction of behavioral risks, and the development of social support through engagement with spiritual communities (Kent, Davis, & Reich, 2014). Some of spiritual activities, including meditation and prayer, improve coping mechanisms through the activation of the relaxation response. Social support minimizes the feelings of abandonment, dejection, or loneliness given that the spiritual community provides both instrumental and emotional support (Kent, Davis, & Reich, 2014).
Spiritual beliefs may impact the trauma survivor’s capacity to derive meaning from the trauma experience, which, in turn, may influence the survivor’s functioning and symptoms. Recovery of meaning in life may be attained through alterations in ways of thinking, engagement in meaningful activities or through rituals performed as a part of religious or spiritual engagement (Hourani et al., 2012). Spiritual and soul searching is needed to manage the diverse personal and ethical challenges, such as psychological and physical injuries, grief, loss, and trauma.
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Conclusion and Recommendations
Military resilience delineates the ability to cope with or surmount adversity or stress. Traits, such as psychological resilience, coupled with functional properties linked to positive emotion may serve to foster effective adaptation to stress by affording enhanced access to positive emotional resources, which, in turn, may aid in supplying a momentary respite from stressful experiences. Spiritual beliefs significantly influence people’s outlook about the world, and provide solace in the face of adversities. Spiritual beliefs may contribute to resilience and well-being, which, in turn, enhances military service readiness and performance. The literature review supports the broaden-and-build theory, which posits that positive experiences affect individual’s cognitive and behavioral resilience resources, which help individuals effectively manage stress and adaptively cope with adversity.
Resilient individuals tend to draw on positive-emotion triggering coping strategies, including humor and infusing the ordinary events with positive meanings in order to regulate adverse emotional experiences. Furthermore, personal religious and spiritual practices are connected to enhanced health and functioning, such as protection against risky behaviors, including substance abuse. Spiritual meditation also functions as a buffer against physiological stress. There exists indirect but converging evidence, which indicates that support from a spiritual community benefits both the health and well-being of a person.
In regard to the cultural appropriateness and strong connection between military resilience and spirituality, there is a need to broaden support for various spiritual needs within military services. In addition, there is a need to incorporate resilience programming into the military policy and doctrine. Military members and their families should be provided with guidance on the available resilience programs designed to teach individual military members and their families techniques that improve positive coping, positive thinking, behavioral control, and realism. The outreach and training efforts should utilize both concepts of “religious” and “spiritual” so that to avert alienation of population.
In addition, there is a need to leverage the existing evidence-based guidance on the execution of spiritual interventions. It may also be achieved through the integration of interventions grounded on both mainstream psychological theories and religion. For instance, the military forces could integrate the constructs of emotional regulation and mindfulness. Future research should explore the cultural, ethnic, and gender differences that impact the military service men and women’s perceptions and capacity to exploit spirituality and religion.