Staff Perspective: Learning to Live with Danger

Staff Perspective: Learning to Live with Danger

Dr. Deb Nofziger

The other night, I was talking with a neighbor about my irritation with loved ones whom I viewed as having an extreme reaction to the current pandemic. When I talk with others and hear about how worried and anxious they are -- and what I view as over-the-top rituals they perform to sanitize their world -- I have found myself getting frustrated with them and trying to convince them that they don’t have to be so worried. At the same time, I am worried about my own reaction, or perceived lack thereof. I go out when I need to, follow social distancing rules, and practice good hand hygiene. But I’m not sanitizing my groceries or mail. Is there something wrong with them… or me?

My discussion with my neighbor helped me sort out what I think is happening, at least for me. It lies in my military and combat deployment experiences. I have already learned how to live with danger. Many of my loved ones have not.

Some in my family will argue against that contention, emphatically stating that they have indeed lived through danger. And for those friends and family (you know who you are), I won’t argue with you. Not because I believe you are right, but because I believe you truly believe what you are saying. In reality, though, many Americans may have experienced episodes of danger, such as accidents and natural disasters, or even more extreme situations where they are victims of or witnesses to physical violence. But most Americans are not faced with prolonged situations where they must constantly be careful or truly risk their lives or others'. This current pandemic is their first experience with that kind of stress.

I remember how anxious and fearful I was leading up to my deployment, even though I was going in a support role and not as a direct warfighter. After arriving in country, I noticed that my anxiety continued as I got used to my new situation. It took a few months for my anxiety to ebb to the point that many people back home would have been horrified. I have slept through incoming missiles. I have had rockets explode within 20 yards of me and an hour later joked about it over dinner. This is not because I was careless. It is simply because I had learned how to live with prolonged danger.

Living with danger does not equate to passivity or carelessness. It doesn’t mean that you don’t react strongly and rapidly when danger is present. In fact, it can mean you are more reactive when faced with danger, going from 1 to 100 in a single moment on the scale of how forcefully you respond. You KNOW when to freak out and do so accordingly! But that is the difference – you know what to react to and when you can stay calm. Alert, but calm nonetheless.

Living with danger means knowing there are risks, doing what you can to mitigate them, and then focusing on living. It’s that last part that is hardest. How do you not let the anxiety of the situation control you? Because if it is, I would argue that you are not living with danger. You are instead living IN danger, letting it determine most of your actions and emotions. The other night, I was listening to my siblings and mentally comparing the conversation now to that of a month ago. Back then, it was all about how to put up protective walls, how to avoid all possible exposure to COVID-19, and who had bought which disinfectant and why. Now, they are talking about getting out, finding ways to have friends over, and pondering what returning to work will look like. They are talking about living with the virus instead of avoiding it. Does that mean they still aren’t worried? That they aren’t disinfecting themselves and being careful about exposure? Of course not. But I noted that while they sound worried, they do not sound as anxious and fearful. They are figuring out how to return to a sense of normal routine and the calmness that comes with the eventual familiarity of life, even in a very unknown and abnormal situation.

I remember once I was at the dining facility toward the end of my deployment. There were newly-deployed units who had joined us at the base, which gave me a good comparison for the timeline of situational adaptation. While I was leaving the tent, there were outgoing missiles being fired, very large, very loud, very percussive missiles. The new soldiers were looking around uncertainly at the rest of us like we were crazy for going on with our business instead of heading to the bunkers, which they were verbally wondering if they should do. “It’s outgoing,” I said, with perhaps a bit too much fatigue and condescension. This is something they would never know without experiencing it a whole lot more; in an indescribable way, outgoing and incoming missiles simply feel and sound different. I remember thinking that they were new and inexperienced regarding the dangers yet. I also was a little sad that I was no longer them and marveled at how much a few months can adapt a person to be calm in what would otherwise be bizarre circumstances.

I shared that story with my neighbor as I was figuring out why I react differently from my loved ones to this pandemic. It helped me remember that it takes time to adapt to chronic danger. There is a process involved that needs to be respected and cannot be rushed. I had forgotten this fact in my frustration toward people in our present situation. So, to those out there learning to adapt for the first time to a strange, dangerous, and prolonged new normal, I promise to have more patience.

Perhaps you are a person who has already learned to live with danger and, like me, are questioning the anxiety in those around you. Or you might be someone wondering why the person across from you doesn’t seem more worried. Consider the possibility that those others are simply at a different place in their journey of learning to live with danger. It is truly strange what we can get used to, from incoming missiles and expecting to be blown up every time you drive, to working in a service industry where you must expect each client to be breathing out an invisible danger to you. No matter how scary, uncertain, and strange the situation is, we continually prove that we are adaptable and will find a way to keep on engaging with life.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Debra Nofziger, Psy.D., is a Senior Military Internship Behavioral Health Psychologist with the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Nofziger is currently located at the Brooke Army Medical Center, TX.