Headlines like the below will undoubtedly cause dismay, disbelief and desperation amongst many veterans who have served in Afghanistan during the last 20 years. Already there is much discontent being shown on social media around the heavy human price the UK and other nations’ military have paid, and for what gains?
This anger is a natural emotion that many will rightly display in these circumstances, but we must keep it under control to minimise the detrimental impact it can have on our physical and mental health.
Being angry is normal, it can even be a healthy response when we feel threatened, deceived, frustrated, or discriminated against. It helps motivate us and keeps us safe as an integral part of our body’s natural freeze, fight or flight response. But if uncontrolled or poorly managed, our anger can become harmful and be as much of a threat as those things that well-managed anger protects us against. This unmanaged anger can be harmful not only to ourselves, but also to those around us including those we care about.
News that the Taliban now control Afghanistan will make many veterans angry as they try to reconcile the loss in terms of friends, colleagues and time away from families. At the close of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2015 the MOD reported 454 British Forces personnel had lost their lives. On top of this there will have been countless Afghanistan veterans who have taken their own lives. Estimates suggest as many as 20 veterans a year would suicide between 2001-2005, with some sources citing as many as 80 a year by 2019. Whilst there is no accurate way to identify how many veterans take their own lives and not all will have served in Afghanistan, it is reasonable to suggest the number is high and many will have served there.
So why might the anger generated by the situation in Afghanistan lead to a deterioration in the mental health of some veterans? Veterans will often display their anger through destructive or harmful behaviour which can be both physically and emotionally damaging to themselves and others. This may include violence, hitting things or being verbally abusive. This can also cause veterans to end up within the judicial system which we know can have a detrimental impact on a person’s mental health. Anger is a strong emotion and when it is present it often blocks out or denies us the opportunity to feel other emotions. We can start to hate ourselves and become isolated as we try to reconcile what is going on; in this case, why did we go to Afghanistan? Was it worth the losses? Another equally dangerous trait of anger is isolation, cutting ourselves off from others and refusing to speak about our feelings and emotions.
If we start to feel the red mist descend and experience a tightness in the chest, churning stomach, hot flushes, tense muscles, headaches, dizziness and trembling, we must seek help.
If we feel guilt, shame, betrayal, resentment or humiliation, we must seek help.
This is easier said than done when the ‘red mist’ descends but try to recognise the early warning signs within yourself that your anger is becoming unhelpful. Try breathing exercises or grounding techniques to calm down and bring yourself back to the present. Talk to a trusted friend or someone who shares your experiences; peer support is proven to be an excellent way to get through times of crisis. The Samaritans 24-hour helpline can also provide an outlet for you to talk to someone by calling 116 123.
If you have a huge amount of energy built up and it is at risk of exploding in anger, try and channel it into another activity such as sport or exercise. If you feel you must be destructive then do so in a way that doesn’t harm yourself or others such as hitting a punch bag or pillow, smashing ice cubes or tearing up magazines or newspapers. As with many issues surrounding the managing of our emotions, try to avoid alcohol and substances, try and get sufficient sleep and try to have a healthy diet.
If you do need professional help then your anger may be the thing that stops you getting this, either by preventing you engaging with professional services or having healthcare professionals reluctant to work with you due to fear generated by your outward displays of anger. Your GP should be able to support you in accessing therapy or counselling if it is felt this is needed and some NHS trusts and the charity Mind offer anger management training courses.
There is no doubt the current news coming out of Afghanistan will cause upset and anger amongst many of those who have served there. We should all try to focus our efforts on what we can control and don’t waste energy and emotions such as anger on what is outside of our control.
Remember: if you start to feel the ‘red mist’ descend – call a friend.