The Similarities Between Coping with the Coronavirus Pandemic and Combat Operational Stress

October 25, 2020 Topic: Health Region: Americas Tags: CoronavirusPandemicIsolationQuarantinePTSD

The Similarities Between Coping with the Coronavirus Pandemic and Combat Operational Stress

Depression, Anxiety, Irritability... Pandemic Stress Disorder sounds a lot like PTSD.

Certain similarities are quite striking. Foreign territories occupied by force can be hostile towards ground soldiers, and threat lurks everywhere—and with the pandemic spread of disease, viral threats lurk everywhere. Soldiers on deployment are separated from friends and family back home—and because of social distancing imperatives, citizens do not have access to the usual social mechanisms of family, friendship, and companionship that moderate the effects of stress under non-pandemic circumstances. Detailed information about the ground situation needed by soldiers to cope with daily updates of intelligence briefings—and information about how to cope with Covid-19 seems to change daily. And the uncertainties of both intelligence briefings and news-for-the-citizen should not be surprising in a situation where both analysts and scientists are trying to make sensible statements about phenomena that are not well understood. These uncertainties greatly magnify the sense of anxiety that accompanies stress responses. 

One of the most important similarities lies in the future. Just as soldiers returning from combat must be reintegrated into society in a healthy way, the nation’s citizens will have to recover from having lived through a mentally stressful experience unprecedented in most of their lifetimes. How will affected citizens—even if they never contracted coronavirus—deal with the negative mental health effects the pandemic has induced.

The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veterans’ Administration (VA) have substantial expertise in treating psychological stress disorders induced by combat. Combat conditions are much more objectively stressful than the conditions encountered every day by ordinary citizens (excluding health care workers), but it may be the case that DoD/VA expertise has some applicability to helping the nation’s citizenry at large recover from coronavirus-related psychological stresses.

Some of the important questions to explore include: 

  • What are the important similarities and differences between combat stress for soldiers and coronavirus stress for the population at large?

  • How and to what extent, if any, can DoD/VA expertise in treating combat and operational stress in soldiers be applied to the larger but less intense problem of treating coronavirus stress?

  • Given that treatment of combat and operational stress is most often undertaken individually or in small groups, how might DoD/VA treatment techniques be scaled to help the population at large?

  • What could be the role of automation and computer-based applications in scaling treatment?

Even if effective treatments and vaccines for coronavirus become available soon, it is not too soon to start thinking about the mental health dimensions of national recovery. The DoD and VA have what is likely to be the largest national repository of expertise in dealing with mental and emotional trauma induced by stresses in the environment, and the nation should be drawing on such expertise as it looks forward to a post-coronavirus world.

Dr. Herb Lin is Hank J. Holland Fellow in Cyber Policy and Security at the Hoover Institution and senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, both at Stanford University.