When a new cadet joins the navy, he is badly stressed. Reasons include a new environment, disciplined life vs. undisciplined civil life, physical fatigue, career questions, and more. What do you recommend to overcome this situation?
-- Maqbool Ilahi Khawaja, Maq Associates
A Dear Maq:
We talked to Mark Gorkin, an expert in stress management. His thoughts follow:
Your sound observations and vital question provide an opportunity both to reflect upon my former Basic Training experience and to focus on motivational tools and techniques developed as a stress and team building training consultant over the past twenty years.
Some of my suggestions are military service tried and true. However, let me start with a few orientation strategies that weren't in place back in the late 1960s.
Here are Seven Stress Busting Tips and Techniques for Cadet Orientation:
- Small Orientation Groups . How about the new cadets participating in small group rap sessions led by an experienced seaman (who is not that much older than the average cadet; a big brother type). The sessions would have six-ten participants, run sixty to ninety minutes; three or four sessions should suffice. This provides a forum for acknowledging stress, venting about the frustrations of coping with military discipline, etc. which will be tension reducing.
- Individual Coaching . Schedule a mandatory orientation one-on-one with an experienced naval officer with counseling skills. Or, better yet, have the cadets meet with an EAP professional or base psychologist. Couch it as a routine chat, not a session with the "base shrink." This meeting should provide a forum for cadets reticent in a group setting. Also, a trained counselor will pretty quickly know which new recruits need a stress follow-up. (I know my biggest anxiety in basic was my M-16 marksmanship, or lack thereof. I definitely could have used some individual mental and skills coaching.)
- Small Team Rotation . Consider using rotating teams as the cadet goes through the various training classes. The teams should have enough stability for some group cohesion and for allowing individuals to form some one-on-one bonds. Rotation, obviously, facilitates the opportunity for connecting with a wider spectrum of peers in a structured learning setting.
- Make a Stress Buddy . While this may happen naturally as part of the orientation process, reinforcing the value of a fellow cadet as a stress buddy makes it less stigmatizing to seek out such a partner and to open up. (Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Honeycutt come to mind.) The strong silent Rambo or Rambette doesn't have to be the only or ideal cadet role model.
- Religious Services and Other Quiet Spaces . I suspect this is already in place. Surely, many cadets will draw on their religious or spiritual faith for strength. Also, just having a place for sitting alone, being quiet with yourself can be stress relieving. And I recall how a bagel and cream cheese breakfast after Jewish services was like being visited by an old friend.
- Writing or E-mailing . Encourage the cadet to stay connected with friends and family back home. Also, following a hometown sports team can be a positive ritual. (For me, tracking the Mets from Fort Jackson, SC in the summer of '69, the year of "The Miracle," reduced the melancholy of missing Woodstock.)
- Physical Exercise . I'm sure this is a high priority for cadets. Exercise not only toughens their stamina, their cardiovascular functioning and helps cadets lose weight, etc., but aerobic exercise releases endorphins, the body's natural pain killers and mood enhancers. Not to mention the fact that exercise improves the quality of sleep.
Also, it's supportive to discover that you're not the only one feeling scared or homesick. Remember, misery doesn't just like company -- it likes miserable company. You might want to try some emotional sharing-team building exercises as a way of helping the cadets bond and use humor and play as a stress buster.
Also, this coaching session, along with the rap group, can answer career questions. Like college frosh, new cadets probably need reassurance that it's okay not having your entire career path mapped out after four weeks of cadet training.
I was fortunate; my college suite mate and I were next to each other during basic. Not only was it a stress reliever, but I have someone who can tell absurdly funny stories about my army daze.
These kinds of rituals, back home customs (especially food related) will definitely provide nurturance and support.
Also, having library or online time can be relaxing, rejuvenating and morale-building. Especially, when so much is group-oriented, a time for personal retreat is vital. One of my most vivid memories is walking in the library the first time and seeing (and hearing) half a dozen guys sleeping and snoring. Which brings up another issue -- try to have your cadets most nights get six hours of sleep. Not only is prolonged sleep deprivation stressful, and exhaustion reduces the effectiveness of the immune system, but recent research shows learning curves and memory retention also falter with less than six hours.
A thought about the online reference, which may allow for both individual time and group sharing. Running a variety of online stress chat groups (for AOL, WebMD), I've experienced first-hand their power as supportive and problem-solving vehicles. Because of its anonymous nature, the chat setting helps folks open up. (Of course, there will be some who just fabricate a story.) The group can encourage a participant to get the real, off-line assistance he or she needs.
Also, research shows that writing letters or keeping a journal can be stress reducing. This effect best results when the writer both expresses emotions and thoughtfully analyzes feelings, problem-situations and problem-solving options.
One final thought for your recruiting officers. The smartest thing I did in the second semester of my senior year at college (before entering basic in July) was taking a vigorous physical exercise "gym class." No doubt, the shock to the mind-body system of cadets when they are confronted by a demanding physical regimen creates STRESS! My getting a head start helped me physically and mentally. In fact, a high score on an initial PT test led to my being selected for a special detail (1/7 of a 21 gun salute at a military funeral) and an early weekend pass.
Help cadets or cadet teams earn "Orientation IRAs" -- Incentives, Rewards and Advancement opportunities through high scores on PT and other training classes. Definitely will boost motivation and morale.
In closing, integrating these seven strategic suggestions should make the orientation and basic training experience more positive and productive. You will surely help the cadets Practice Safe Stress!
SOURCE: Mark Gorkin, LICSW "The Stress Doc" (TM), firstname.lastname@example.org.
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