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How to Develop Mental Resilience

scott evans - veteran with mental resiliance

We all have problems we struggle with daily: figuring out what’s for dinner, juggling family members’ schedules, working through a PTSD flare-up, surviving a global pandemic. No matter how big or small, these all require resilience.

Building resilience is about solving problems and bouncing back from them. And most often, problems crop up because of a situation we’re not used to or haven’t figured out how to manage yet — whether that’s an injury, trauma, or an uncomfortable environment or set of circumstances. When you are facing these barriers, it’s important to use your energy efficiently and effectively because you can wear yourself out thinking about every possible scenario. Setting yourself up for success starts with deciding you don’t want your burdens to shape your life. 

U.S. Army veteran Gretchen Evans knows a thing or two about making your life what you want it to be. She spent 27 years serving our nation, including multiple combat tours to Afghanistan, where she coordinated logistics and managed counterintelligence efforts. She rose to the rank of command sergeant major, the senior enlisted advisor to the commanding officer. Then she sustained a career-ending injury in a rocket attack blast at a forward operation base.

“As soon as I knew I was deaf, I knew my career was over,” Gretchen said. “I didn’t have a plan B because it never crossed my mind. All of a sudden, I didn’t know what to do. I was 46 and had been in the Army since age 19; I didn’t have any adult civilian world experiences.”

Gretchen also left the Army with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from being exposed to trauma multiple times. She said it was hard to find employment because of her combination of injuries, noting that employers didn’t want to take that on and figure out how to accommodate her.

“But I thought, ‘I’m too young to be sitting at home,’ and I didn’t want these injuries to define me,” Gretchen said. “I had to be an advocate for myself in the beginning. Yes, I have injuries, but I also have skills.”

Gretchen shared advice for anyone who is looking to build mental resilience:

  • You’re the same person you were before you experienced trauma or injuries. It might feel like you’ve lost your identity when you face a life-changing scenario, but getting hurt doesn’t mean you have to stop doing what you love. “You just have to get smarter about it and figure out a way to mitigate your injuries so you can do what you want to do,” Gretchen said. “It might feel different, and you might look different, but your trauma didn’t touch the part of you that defines who you are.”
  • Don’t be the first person to say no to yourself. Learn how to advocate for yourself. “So often, we tell ourselves we can’t do something before anyone else does,” Gretchen said. “If you want to do it, tell yourself ‘yes.’ Go into it knowing you’ll have to dig deep sometimes.” Believe in your good traits. Once you’ve identified these, you can focus on developing solutions to your problems using your strengths. And if it’s harder than you expected, focus on why you’re doing this. If you started working toward a goal, there is a strong reason behind it.
  • Break your problems or goals into little pieces. “I wake up and ask myself what I’m facing each day and how I can best navigate it,” Gretchen said. “You don’t have to worry about a year or six months from now, whether it’s a job interview or finding new passion and purpose.” For example, don’t focus on getting a job. Focus on identifying your strengths, creating your resume, and applying for jobs. Break tasks into tangible pieces that are easy to achieve so you don’t get overwhelmed with the big picture. Small tasks add up to big tasks, and before you know it, you’ve reached your goal.
  • Find others who have been successful. “Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) is the perfect place to find people who have overcome obstacles,” Gretchen said. “Some are farther along in their journeys, so don’t be afraid to ask. Most are happy to share how they navigate life post-military. There is no single true way; you must find what works for you. But taking advice from others will help you along the way.”

Today, Gretchen is continuing to succeed. She is a motivational speaker, encouraging others to be their best selves and not let anything stand in the way. Gretchen also competed in World’s Toughest Race on Team Unbroken with other injured veterans. The show initially rejected her team’s application, but she persevered to prove their value, and ultimately, the team was accepted.

“After being injured, I embraced what was reality and continued forward,” Gretchen said. “That is not to say I didn’t have to struggle in the beginning. It was hard and frustrating, but what choice did I really have? The alternative would have been to wither away in a non-productive life. I tell people who question me, ‘If you close the door in my face, not only will I not know if I can do this, but you won’t ever know what people with injuries are capable of.’”

Connect with WWP to learn more about veterans mental health services and how you can build a positive future to look forward to.

Contact: Rachel Bolles — Public Relations, rbolles@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.760.2425

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.