The No.1 reason why Overcoming Adversity can reduce stress.

The No.1 reason why Overcoming Adversity can reduce stress.

The No.1 reason why Overcoming Adversity can reduce stress. The U.S. Army via Compfight

Why do more civilians suffer from clinical anxiety disorders than military personnel in operational conditions.

Yesterday, a master mind partner asked me to comment on a presentation he was preparing for his next workshop. One of his slides had the astounding (to me) fact that 18.1% of all American adults suffered from clinical anxiety disorders, the bulk of them societal anxieties.

My immediate reaction was that figure would be higher than the level for military personnel in Afghanistan and certainly much higher than I remember from my own 10 year part time military duty.

Today I did some research and found other sources (Wikipedia) that confirm the 18% level for Americans and a slightly lower level of 14% for Europeans. This study did not offer suggestions for the lower rate amongst Europeans. Could it be that many enjoy a laid back Mediterranean lifestyle? Higher wine consumption?

Then I attempted to confirm my suspicions that the level was lower in the military, it is difficult to make direct comparisons but an article on the American Psychological Association website found that in a 2010 survey in Afghanistan, 17% of soldiers reported acute stress. This was almost double the level reported in Iraq in 2007.

Obviously not all those soldiers reporting acute stress would have been diagnosed as having a Clinical Anxiety Disorder.

The report also stated that high numbers of those soldiers had either witnessed an IED explosion (62%) or reported that a unit member had been killed by enemy action. (70%).

That led me to check if the rate of anxiety disorders might increase in soldiers after returning to a safer life back home, either still in the military or as civilians.

We tend to assume that the people most likely to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) would be military veterans, survivors of bad accidents, victims of abuse. While there is a correlation with those groups, the horrifying truth is that the most likely candidate for PTSD is a child who has spent 1 year between the ages of 14 and 18 in a foster home.

The rate for those children is 25% compared to 4% for the general population and 12 – 13% for Iraq Veterans. For children who suffered physical or sexual abuse the rate is much higher. (42 – 60%) The rate for Vietnam veterans was higher at 15%, possibly because of the way many were treated when they returned home. (My speculation)

Those results tend to confirm my initial assumption that the incidence of Clinical Anxiety is higher amongst the general population than those in more dangerous occupations or situations.

My experience back in the 1970′s and again in the 3 years of violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe from 2000 was similar. Very few people developed serious stress related anxiety disorders. Of all the people I knew or knew of in the military, I cannot remember a remarkable case. Perhaps we were all nuts to start with.

Many of our friends, men and women, were beaten to within an inch of their lives during the brutal farm invasions, some more than once, others saw their spouses or parents shot in front of them. Some had to endure wives and mothers being raped. Many of the victims were 50, 60 or even 70 years old.

Out of hundreds of incidents of physical violence and thousands more of severe intimidation, I only know of one farmer who “lost it” and he had been beaten into unconsciousness, thrown into the back of a pickup with 2 other badly injured neighbours and a third already dead.

Undoubtedly, those of us who survived have all been affected to some extent, but as in stories of overcoming adversity from concentration camps or natural disasters, most of us just got on with our lives. Most of us in new countries, new careers, making new friends.

What then is that reason that more people can endure hardship and overcome adversity than can survive safety, comfort and relative affluence?


I am not a psychologist or doctor, these are my opinions based on observing people surviving both adversity and success over a lifetime. If you suspect that you are suffering from clinical anxiety or serious stress, seek medical opinion.

Back in the Rhodesian terrorist war, we were fighting for our country, our survival and our future. We had been betrayed by our former allies, promises of independence had been broken. We had no option but to do what ever we could to survive. For men that meant serving 4 to 6 weeks in the bush, alternating with similar periods at home to catch up with careers or businesses. We did it for years. We missed half of our children’s early lives and it cost us dearly in lost income and lost business.

At the same time we endured sanctions, shortages of many essentials and a complete absence of luxury items, including fancy Christmas presents for kids. Petrol (gas) rationing was with us for years, but unlike modern Zimbabwe, our electricity supply was rarely interrupted.

Wives, girlfriends, mothers and just friends picked up a lot of the heavy lifting on farms and in businesses, became part-time single mothers before the term came into common usage. They had the added stress of worrying about their men, whether they would come home in one piece or even at all.

We had purpose in our lives, staying alive, fighting for our country and our freedom. We did not have time to feel sorry for ourselves.

We also had an overwhelming feeling of anger at the injustice, the betrayal. Many of society’s greatest changes good and bad, have started with a spreading sense of anger becoming a cause and then providing people with a purpose.

Did some crack? Yes, as in any society, some marriages fell apart, some decided they had enough and left for easier lives oversees. But most of us stayed, got on with it and learned valuable lessons that helped us survive more adversity in different places, different situations and at different times.

For similar reasons, soldiers in Afghanistan have a purpose, two really:

  • To stay alive.
  • To do their duty.

Most past and present service men and women gripe and complain about military life and will continue to do. However, whether regular or conscripted, the majority accept that they must do their duty. The compulsion to do one’s duty provides a huge sense of purpose, even in situations one would prefer not to be in.

For huge numbers of people in our Western societies, there is no longer a strong purpose to life. Millions are in boring jobs they do not like, millions of others are unemployed but surviving on benefits paid for by the taxes of others.

Millions can not see any point in trying harder, they can see no future because they have lost their hope, clarity and direction. They are in an in between world, bad enough to make them totally miserable, focusing on what is wrong. But not bad enough to be life threatening. Not immediately threatening enough to motivate them to action.

The results of this weeks USA presidential election are a symptom of the lack of purpose, vote for someone who tells us we will be looked after with handouts paid for by the successful,  rather than someone who tells us we cannot afford the handouts.

That is why minimalist movements and unconventional lifestyle promoters are becoming popular. They are offering hope to people, showing them a way to have better lives without having to generate big incomes to sustain them. Some people will embrace these ideas and have wonderful lives.

Will these alternatives work for everyone? Highly unlikely and despite the exhortations to throw off the shackles and travel the world or live out of a back pack, that is still too radical and impractical for most people. Besides we need people to stay home to do the jobs that keep society’s wheels turning.

How to find purpose

The old parable about the 3 men chipping away at blocks of marble in a medieval Italian quarry:

When asked what he was doing by a visiting dignitary, the first, an apprentice said, “I am chipping away at this stone”, the second, a journeyman, responded “I am preparing the best, most accurately carved block of stone I can. The third, the master, replied, “I am building a cathedral”.

No matter what we are doing, we can find purpose in it by building our own cathedral. We can find joy and pleasure in the most menial tasks, the most boring jobs or activities. Finding purpose and with it the resilience to endure, allows us to overcome adversity and then develop the right attitudes to build the lives we want.

What is your purpose? Leave a comment, start a debate.

What do you think of the new design?

Wishing you success.


The No.1 reason why Overcoming Adversity can reduce stress.



The No.1 reason why Overcoming Adversity can reduce stress.
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