If you spend any time talking candidly with a Veteran or active duty Service member who has deployed during recent military campaigns, you will shortly determine that they are generally hypervigilant and risk averse. As a clinical psychologist working with Service members and Veterans who have deployed in support of OIF, OEF, etc., I continue to realize anecdotal interventions to help address and decrease the negative impact and/or influence of disruptive post-deployment adjustment issues resulting from deployment experiences (to include trauma experiences). This blog entry will address “risk aversion” (i.e., the post-deployed service member’s or veteran’s tendency to avoid things that, from their perspective, might put their safety or security at risk such as being in crowds, not having control of a situation, going places without plan, etc…). This “protective” avoidance is extended to the Service member or Veteran’s family and/or loved ones and consequently, has a significant impact on their lives as well.
So, what does it mean to be “risk averse?” In general, risk aversion is a person’s tendency, when confronted with or exposed to uncertainty, to do things and/or make decisions that will decrease and/or eliminate that uncertainty (or allow them to avoid an uncertain and potentially harmful consequence). The concept of risk aversion can be found in a number of contexts, to include psychological research and study. Given its wording, I particularly appreciate the description provided in economics and finance: “A risk averse investor is an investor who prefers lower returns with known risks rather than higher returns with unknown risks.” I appreciate this description because it seems to aptly describe Service members and Veterans in the post-deployment environment. While deployed, Service members were compelled (i.e., “forced”) by the nature of their service, duties, and/or responsibilities, to experience and endure high levels of risk on a consistent basis for months on end. For those who deployed multiple times, the extent to which they endured high levels of risk was even greater. From a psychological standpoint, it makes intuitive sense that once and individual is free of such high level of risk (i.e., has return to the non-deployed environment), he/she would be reluctant (if not overtly resistant) to engaging with people, places, and/or situations that produce the potential for similar feelings and/or fears of being at high risk (i.e., unsafe, unsure, and/or unsecure). In my post-deployment group with Service members/Veterans who were previously deployed, group members bluntly state that the nature of the deployed situation “forced” them to endure such high risk and now that they have a measure of control in the non-deployed environment, “never again.”
However, “risk” plays a direct and overt role in defining one’s quality of life. Clinically, in an effort to have previously deployed individuals appreciate that they should take more risk (and subsequently, improve their quality of life); I overtly tie quality of life to their degree of risk aversion. More specifically, both in individual psychotherapy session with previously deployed individuals and in the post-deployment group setting with individuals who were previously deployed, I explain and discuss the concept of risk aversion. I explain how in economics investors who take more risks “generally” have better outcomes financially than those who simply “play it safe”… generally. This they seem to understand. For further clarity, I make a direct comparison between themselves and their family members who have never deployed. I instruct them to consider their family members and/or loved ones’ willingness to “risk” going out to the mall, movie theatres, restaurants; their willingness to go without security systems, firearms strategically placed throughout the home, and an ‘apparent’ inability to see potential harm in most persons and situations; and finally, their willingness to trust that people are inherently good, to give up “control” in favor of ambivalence, and in general, their willingness to “walk around as in nothing is going to happen to them.” Following a discussion in which we compare and contrast differences in non-deployed individuals and those who have deployed, I ask, “Who seems to be having more fun?” “Who seems to be enjoying life more?” That is, “Who seems to have a better quality of life?” The answer is always, “They do” and I follow up with… “And what is it that they are doing that provides for this better quality of life?” By this point, the insight has been gained and the answer is obvious…so, they say, “take more risks.” From a therapeutic process standpoint, the insight gained by the individual (or group) now allows for a candid discussion of what/when/and how they developed such a “risk averse” disposition; the true impact of their “risk aversion” on ‘their’ quality of life; the true impact that ‘their’ risk aversion has on the quality of life for other members of the household; and finally, the commitment needed to engage in activities (to include a therapeutic intervention) that decreases their level of risk aversion.
Anthony McCormick, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD. Located at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center, Fort Gordon, Georgia, he provides behavioral health treatment interventions aimed at resolving the clinical issues and mental health concerns of military service members with a focus on deployment related diagnoses.