By Taryn Greene, Ph.D., Boulder Crest Foundation
When I read that the US Surgeon General declared loneliness an epidemic in the United States in the aftermath of COVID-19, it made me think. I thought about the gravity of so many millions of people experiencing the painful emotions that have been a familiar part of my life as a military member and veteran. Loneliness and lack of connection and belonging are critical factors that impact everyone’s mental and physical health and can even lead to suicide.
When loneliness relates to trauma or loss, it can feel impossible to believe anyone will understand what we are going through. Worse, many of us feel shame associated with our struggles.
On the heels of two tours in Afghanistan as an Air Force Intelligence Officer in my twenties, I struggled with feeling that I couldn’t talk to anyone. Without being able to process what happened, I began having bodily manifestations of my mental turmoil, including night sweats, nightmares, feeling on edge most of the time, and panic attacks. Being deployed had changed me in ways I would not understand for many years. For many, trauma can take years to recover from. For some, it takes a lifetime.
For a long time, I felt as though pieces of me had died in Kabul. I was stuck reliving the loss of one soldier who guarded the compound where I worked. It didn’t seem right to say I was grieving this soldier because the truth was I barely knew him, but his death shook me to my core. We were colleagues in arms, he guarded us, kept us safe. And he passed away doing that job. After his memorial service, we all went straight back to work. We worked through rocket attacks and daily reports of fallen soldiers.
Loneliness consumed me as I moved between combat zones, the civilian world, and the places in between. But I didn’t feel worthy of my struggle. I knew other people had seen “real combat,” so I kept things to myself. I didn’t understand why I was struggling so hard. This is the kind of shame that causes us to isolate ourselves when we need help the most. I now understand that going to war as a young woman shattered my beliefs about the world being a safe and reliable place.
Thirteen years later, as a Health Psychologist who specializes in Posttraumatic Growth, I help create programs that facilitate healing for people experiencing trauma and loss. I’m the Director of Research at the nonprofit Boulder Crest Foundation, a global leader in the development, delivery, study, and scale of Posttraumatic Growth programs.
When I think back on my experiences in the military, it still brings me to tears some days. I find a lot of meaning in those tears, knowing I have dedicated my life to helping others. But as I glance at the journal I’ve kept through the years, I am reminded that though there is strength in my tears, some days I still struggle to find it. That’s where my expert companions come in, integral to the process and outcome of Posttraumatic Growth.
Expert Companions can Catapult us into Healing and Growth
The decades-old science of Posttraumatic Growth teaches us that expert companions are the people in our lives who are prepared to listen deeply and to join us in our struggles. I found my first expert companions as I began transitioning from active duty to civilian life. They helped me finally begin to understand how my core beliefs had been shattered by my experiences in combat. And they helped me begin to rebuild my life.
Expert companions are ready to be vulnerable right along with us and to join us in making sense of what happened. They try to understand how and why our most deeply held beliefs have been shattered, and they are there with us as we construct a new reality. Perhaps most critically, expert companions notice areas of courage and transformation within us and share those with us when we are ready. This helps us connect with our inner sources of strength.
Research studies consistently show that true connection, social support, and belonging help people thrive. Expert companions facilitate all these things and are critical for helping people transform their struggles into strength. At the Boulder Crest Foundation, we have developed programs like Warrior PATHH and Struggle Well to train first responders, veterans, and active-duty military members in the art of expert companionship, which often leads people to have positive psychological transformations or posttraumatic growth (PTG). We are now working to bring PTG to all people.
Loneliness Can Heal with a Sense of Belonging
In his public statement, the Surgeon General said to counteract the loneliness epidemic “each of us can start now, in our own lives, by strengthening our connections and relationships.” One place we can start is evaluating where we feel we truly belong and are connected. This can help us think about where our expert companions might be. There are four important elements of belonging: emotional connection, membership, needs fulfillment, and the ability to contribute.
Here are four questions* to ask yourself about the groups and people you spend time with:
- Do I feel emotionally connected with people in this group?
- Do I feel like a member of this group?
- Can I get what I need from this group?
- Do I feel like I have a say or an influence in this group?
*Questions adapted from the Brief Sense of Community Scale (Lardier, Opara, Cantu, Garcia‐Reid, & Reid, 2022)
These questions can help us examine where connection and belonging are serving us well and identify places where our connection and belonging may not be as deep as we think. Sometimes, these kinds of questions can lead to the realization that we are avoiding certain parts of ourselves or our lives, or not talking about what’s really bothering us. It’s okay to take time to process when these things come up. And it’s ok to move away from relationships that aren’t serving us well and toward those that do.
Although our country is experiencing loneliness as an epidemic, there is hope. We all deserve a chance to be seen and heard and to tell our stories. The more we do this, the more belonging and connection we have in our lives. The principles of Posttraumatic Growth teach us that experiencing struggles can make us stronger, and one of the most important decisions we can make for our health is to choose to break the cycle of isolation when we feel alone.
There are expert companions out there ready to listen, often we must connect with ourselves first to find them. If you or someone you know is struggling with loneliness related to loss, there are resources that can help. Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma and The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook: Coming Through Trauma Wiser, Stronger, and More Resilient. Learn more about Boulder Crest Foundation at www.bouldercrest.org.
Taryn Greene, Ph.D., is the Director of Research at the nationally recognized nonprofit, Boulder Crest Foundation, the home of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) and the global leader in the development, delivery, study, and scale of PTG-based programs. She is a former active duty Air Force Intelligence Officer and two-tour veteran of Afghanistan. As a Health Psychologist she specializes in research and application of psychological processes related to posttraumatic growth, resilience, and thriving in the aftermath of stress, trauma, and loss. She has published alongside Dr. Tedeschi and Dr. Moore on the topic of facilitating posttraumatic growth in first responders, military members, and veterans. Taryn brings expertise in positive psychology, trauma-informed care, and program evaluation, as well as experience utilizing applied research to investigate the experiences of military, refugee, and immigrant populations overcoming adversity.