Nov 1, 2021
Cigna's Dr. Joe Nicholson: Learning Resilience Can Help Veterans Combat Mental Health Issues

Resilience is defined as our ability as human beings to quickly recover from adversity.

According to Dr. Joe Nicholson, chief medical officer of CareAllies, a Cigna company, learning the skills of resilience is possible – and particularly necessary for our veterans and their families.

Indeed, trying to assimilate into civilian life after combat brings a host of challenges. Studies show that veterans often struggle with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and other health conditions. And while many returning service members need mental health support, only about half seek treatment.

Veterans are also at 50% higher risk of suicide than their peers who have not served, which demonstrates the stigma around mental health and asking for help within this community. Resilience is extremely important in dealing with the trauma often caused by both visible and invisible wounds of war.

“I think that it is true that some people are naturally more resilient than others,” Dr. Nicholson said. “Their brains are just hardwired that way. We all know these type of ‘glass half-full people,’ and we lean into them. But I do also think that there is learning that can happen to help people become more resilient. By understanding the skills or traits of resiliency, people can change and become more resilient.”

In this exclusive interview, Dr. Nicholson, a U.S. Army veteran, deep dives into the skills and characteristics that are inherent in resilient people. He also discusses why resilience is critical for both veterans and their families and how we as a society can build a safe space for the veteran community and those actively serving to help them build their resilience.

What are the skills/characteristics of a resilient person?

The skillsets that drive resilience are very much attitudinal and reside in the “soft skills” category. But I do think that the most resilient people have a number of things in common that the rest of us can learn from and try to emulate.

Above: Dr. Nicholson's six traits of resilient people. Click here for a larger view of this image.

Some of the most resilient people I know are the glass half-full type. They do not allow themselves to be defined by their problems or challenges. Resilient people focus on the here and now: What they can do or will do, rather than dwelling on why they can’t do something.  

Part of that glass half-full mentality also extends into giving more. I find that resilient people are often looking for ways to help the people around them. And I often coach junior executives to be sure they are always giving more than they receive in their relationships. This characteristic – to give more and take less – can not only enhance the quality of relationships around you, but I also believe it drives resilience. 

A third quality of resilient people is they make time for positivity for themselves. My mom always said, “You can’t pour from an empty cup, so take care of yourself!” I’ll give you an example, which demonstrates this and the power of art and creativity. My wife, who is an amazing artist, gets a lot of value in finding time for herself to create and be creative. I have different hobbies, and they also help fill my tank in a really positive way. Finding time for you helps to build resilience because it places you in a better position to take care of others. 

Resilient people often have a strong support network. According to the Cigna Resilience Index, people who have a strong sense of community and support from family, friends, teammates, and peers often report higher levels of resilience. Some are blessed to have been born into a support network with a strong/healthy family dynamic. But I would submit, those with strong resilience are constantly maintaining and building their network irrespective of their family dynamic. And part of that resilience is due to the fact that they know they always have people to reach out to for help – and they readily activate their network for support when and where needed.

Self-awareness matters in almost every facet of life. Being self-aware makes you a better executive, it makes you a better spouse, and it also makes us better humans. Resilient people are self-aware and constantly checking in with themselves to better understand how their own behavior is impacting the people around them. The self-aware are often good listeners, too. A healthy self-awareness not only helps monitor your own internal barometer, but it also creates a ripple effect, which can be protective for those in your orbit.

And lastly, I also believe that resilient people keep good company to help maintain their resilience by surrounding themselves with people who help “fill their cup” and are generally optimistic about life.  Keeping a steady diet of optimism coming from friends in your orbit helps sustain resilience. And, it doesn’t mean that you avoid people that need your help or are struggling. In fact, it is just the opposite: By maintaining a healthy ecosystem for yourself – you are more effective and capable of helping others when they need some re-energizing.

Building Greater Resilience

The Cigna Resilience Index reveals that resilience – or our ability to quickly recover from challenges – is at risk in three in five Americans, and finds that there are simple ways to build resilience.

Learn more

Why is resilience especially important for the Veteran community and their families?

In my humble opinion, military veterans, as a general statement, are a high-resilience, high-speed, low-drag community. Resilience is a critical trait, particularly for our combat veterans – or even non-combatants who were exposed to the horrors of combat and the associated aftermath. This unique band of brothers and sisters are the most impacted. Many will have PTSD. All will have vivid memories they will carry for the rest of their lives. And, their families may or may not understand what they have been through.

In addition, our communities may not understand what we, as military veterans, are going through or have experienced. It is highly likely the civilian world does not possess the lens through which military veterans filter certain things in the world around us. A key contributor of resilience while in uniform is the network of those around you. The people who have that shared experience can suffer a severe sense of loss once we transition to civilian life.  For many veterans – they lose that sense of connectivity and thus, suffer a loss in their resilience. This is why service beyond combat is so important. That sense of purpose, mission, focus, and direction is important to sustain, particularly as we transition to the civilian workforce. It is critical that we military veterans collectively cultivate our own resilience so we are best positioned to support our brothers and sisters in arms when they are going through a difficult time. 

And what about their families?

I’m really glad you brought up resilience in the context of not just veterans, but also their families, as it is something that often gets left out of the conversation. But I’m going to add an additional element to this, and that’s the Gold-Star (those who have children that are MIA or died in active duty) and Blue-Star families (those who have children who have served, or are currently in active duty). These are the families that have lost a son, a daughter, a husband, or a wife. When we recognize military veterans, it is really important that we recognize the sons, daughters, and other family members that have lost someone who was in active duty. They have to be included in the dialogue.

My wife has a really strong point of view on the importance of forming bonds and relationships with other military spouses and families. No one really understands as well as someone else who has been there. There’s a kinship that develops among these families. Having that kind of support helped her a lot and, I believe, made her more resilient.

Watch the short video below with Dr. Nicholson, where he shares questions to ask yourself or veterans you know to check-in on their emotional health during the pandemic.

There’s a lot of stigma around mental health. How can we as a company, and also as a society, build a space for veterans and those actively serving around mental health?

There is much we can do within existing infrastructure, and also much that is yet to be done. From my point of view, Cigna actually does a great job of leaning into our military and veteran support services. For example, our Salute employee resource group is a great forum for military veterans to connect with other veterans and learn about support services, including mental health services that are available to them. We were recently recognized for the fourth time as a 2021 Military Friendly Employer by Viqtory, and as a Best for Vets Employer by Military Times for the fifth time.

As a society, I think the single most important thing we can do is allowing the dialogue, because there is so much that is unsaid. I hang with a bunch of pretty hardcore former combatants, and re-entering society as a civilian can be really difficult for them. Many of them are afraid to talk to mental health professionals because they don’t think they can understand what they’ve gone through.

The good news is there are quite a few venues – such as the American Veterans Motorcycle Club that I am a part of – for veterans to come together and lean on one another. Creating these types of environments, where veterans can rely on one another and mentor each other, is critical. It goes back to that support network we talked about before, which can open the cork for dialogue and result in someone seeking help from a mental health professional. Comradery is key.

I also think that it’s important to connect military veterans with veterans who are health care and mental health professionals – where you can.

Outside of counseling and comradery, what other types of support do veterans and their families need?

An empathetic ear. You don’t need to be a combat veteran to comfort a combat veteran. You get points for showing up even if you don’t have the right words to say. Give your time, positive energy, and be willing to listen.

I also think it’s important to consistently highlight the strengths our veterans bring to the workplace and to their communities, whether through their leadership and results-oriented drive or through military veteran connections via a motorcycle club and volunteerism.

Military and Veteran Resources

Our health resources for veterans can help you or a family member cope with military deployment and find assistance and support post-deployment.

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