Shelf Life: Why Emotions Shouldn’t Be Stored

ortiz_blog_Apr_18_16Recently I wrote an article where I mentioned compartmentalization in order to explain how it helps some service members deal with being in a deployed environment. To read it click here. For those who are not familiar with the term, compartmentalization is an unconscious coping mechanism used by our minds to avoid conflicts. In some disciplines, this is easily explained as putting your emotions in a storage bin. When it comes to compartmentalization, men are more likely to use this coping mechanism because of how they were raised. A great example of this is when a boy falls from a bicycle, he goes crying to his father. Sure the father will be concerned, but most likely he will proceed to scold the boy because as some of us have heard many times before “boys don’t cry”. As we go through life, we continue this pattern of storing our emotions and do such a great job of internalizing them that we forget to address them.

During my deployment, the primary mission of our Behavioral Health team was aimed towards prevention. We were very aware of the alarming rise in numbers of mental health cases reported from the VA and we could already anticipate it growing drastically in the next several years. This made it imperative for us to get the word out and promote our services for the soldiers. As we visited each unit to do our outreach, we were received with mixed reactions. There were some unit leaders that understood what we were trying to accomplish and collaborated with us in order to help their soldiers be resilient. But every once in a while we would encounter a unit leader that did not believe Behavioral Health was a priority to their unit. They were adamant about not wanting our services and would go as far as asking us to stay away from their soldiers because somehow “we were going to weaken them”. Don’t get me wrong; I know what their thought process was, but why would they want to prevent their soldiers from benefitting from our services when they knew what the possible outcome was?

If you have ever been a member of any of the military branches, you know that having someone to talk to helps you get through those days where it seems its never going to end. It is during those tough times that lifetime friendships are created. Till this day, 3 of my closest friends (whom I refer to as brothers) are from the Army. As I experienced firsthand, there are a variety of situations that a service member goes through while they are overseas. Surprisingly, the majority of those situations are not combat related and are more connected to home front issues. Because I had one of my closest friends with me, whenever I went through issues at home, I was able to sort out some of those thoughts and feelings before I returned. But imagine having issues with your spouse while you are thousands of miles away and then going a year bottling up all those emotions while they are slowly festering within. If they did not seek help or had someone close to confide in, these unresolved feelings could become problematic during the reintegration process.

Talking about our feelings should no longer be looked as a sign of weakness but as something that can strengthen us emotionally. Like anything that has been in storage for too long, it can be unfit for use and may harm us if consumed. We can no longer try the same defense mechanism of storing our emotions and then expect a different outcome. As leaders, we should encourage our men and women to seek out someone that they can talk to. It can be anyone from a trained professional or one of your closest friends. The important thing is to avoid putting those emotions in a permanent storage bin and instead release them little by little in order to avoid severe issues down the line such as anxiety or depression.