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How to Develop Mental Resilience

Army veteran and motivational speaker Gretchen Evans (left) competes with Team Unbroken in World's Toughest Race.

We all have problems we struggle with daily: figuring out what’s for dinner, juggling family schedules, and managing stress, just to name a few. No matter how big or small, the struggles we face require us to build resilience.

Building resilience is about solving problems and bouncing back from them. Most often, the problems that take us by surprise are just situations we’re not used to or haven’t figured out how to manage yet.

In the veteran community, these challenges can range from physical injuries to trauma to an uncomfortable environment or a set of triggering circumstances. Setting yourself up for success starts with deciding you don’t want your burdens to shape your life. 

U.S. Army veteran Gretchen Evans, a motivational speaker, recipient of the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2022 ESPYs, and former competitor on World’s Toughest Race, spent 27 years serving our nation, including multiple combat tours to Afghanistan. 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 operating 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). 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.”

For those looking to build mental resilience, here are Gretchen’s top tips:

  • You’re the same person you were before you experienced trauma or injuries. It might feel like you’ve lost your identity, 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. Break tasks into tangible pieces that are easy to achieve so you don’t get overwhelmed with the big picture. For example, don’t focus on getting a job. Focus first on identifying your strengths, second creating your resume, and third applying for jobs. Small tasks add up to big tasks, and before you know it, you’ve reached your goal.
  • Find others who are further along in the journey. “Wounded Warrior Project is the perfect place to find people who have overcome obstacles,” Gretchen said. “Most [veterans] 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.”

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

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.


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