Eat, Sleep, Rest
The pillars for high performance, and recovery for mental wellbeing
In the autumn dawn of 2007, I was on a combat mission to clear a strategically critical valley in Oruzgan province, Afghanistan. We shivered in the damp fog as we marked landing zones for a clearance force. Giant helicopters soon landed and disgorged hundreds of soldiers onto the battlefield. They ran silently, squatting in ditches before the clearance started.
Two hours later, I was kneeling next to a dying soldier. We were trapped in a small aqueduct and a member of our team had been shot through the chest and badly wounded. I was keeping low to the ground since the enemy had spotted us and was firing to pin us down.
It took 12 hours for us to get out of that valley. We survived, but it was a harrowing introduction to combat.
Those opening minutes, my first in combat, were horrifying. I realised things would not be the same again after the sun set on that day. If my team and I survived, I knew we would have to live with some form of trauma.
After that long deployment in Afghanistan, I returned home. Something was not right - normally, I could usually work at high intensity for 12-16 hours a day. Now I could just manage 12-16 minutes. Exhaustion was ever-present. I felt emotionally numb. I drank heavily. When I slept, nightmares were common. I was far from my best self, and getting worse.
I finally sought help. A psychiatrist diagnosed me with moderate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression. I was not surprised. Without help, it would be a fast track to personal and career ruin.
Desperate, I visited an army neuroscientist for help. He listened closely as I explained my experiences and symptoms. He nodded, jumped to his feet and started drawing on the whiteboard. He sketched out a picture of a brain, spinal column and detailed parts within the brain, circling a couple of them.
“This is your amygdala” he circled a small patch near the spinal column. “This is an ancient, reptilian part of your brain that controls fight or flight responses. It keeps you alive when you face danger. You have been overusing this for the last six months. So, you are more lizard than human at the moment.” I laughed. “This,” he said, pointing at the frontal lobe of the brain, “is your prefrontal cortex. This is responsible for cognitive functioning, problem solving, and logic. We call it the 'CEO' of your brain. These executive functions have been ‘benched’ since your life has been under threat. It has probably atrophied. We are going to rebuild your mind, and I’m going to show you how.” This made sense. I was relieved when I realised I was not mad. "You will recover, most people do. I'm going to get you started with some tips and routines I want you to follow."
This was the first step in a long path to recovery, and it set the foundation for the habits I have today. What he told me was incredibly simple.
The main pillars for my recovery were rest, diet, and exercise:
Rest. The neuroscientist that treated me said: “I am going to give you a routine that will improve duration and quality of your sleep.” His routine took about 30 minutes. It involved stretching, concentrated breathing, making a short diary entry, showering, and sitting down to read fiction book before bed. He told me to adjust the length of the routine depending on how well I was sleeping. I still use this routine today, it's a great investment of time – and I sleep really well.*
Eat well. Studies have found that "better quality diets are consistently associated with reduced depression risk." I increased plant based foods and reduced processed foods, especially sugars. I also cut back on alcohol consumption, which helped improve sleep.
Exercise often. Finding a routine of exercise can help "reduce the symptoms of PTSD and improves coping mechanisms" according to a recent study conducted in Australia. I tried Crossfit, rugby and boxing and they all helped. My concentration and energy levels improved. The exercise classes I went to linked me into community, another enabler for positive mental health.
The habits I learned around these pillars helped me recover, and also became the foundations of high performance.
My brush with mental illness is not unusual. The same issues afflict many people in society, not just soldiers. The most common forms of mental health issues are anxiety disorders (37%), alcohol disorders (13%), and depressive episodes (11%) . PTSD is one of the many but the good news is that 80% of people recover with some assistance.
Mental health should not be viewed as an isolated system. It is part of a 'system of systems' we have in the human body. Recognising your mental health is one cog of many in your overall system, is critical to treating it holistically.
Hiding from trauma is not a strategy. I know, I've tried it. When it comes to dealing with trauma, tackle it front on. Fight it with sound intelligence, a clear strategy, tactics backed up by science, relentless discipline, and without mercy.
* To change everything you know about sleep, listen to this podcast on the science of sleep between Joe Rogan and sleep expert and neuroscientist Dr Matthew Walker. It's hilarious too, if you can tolerate some swearing.
* To hear more about Mark Wales’s story & forging resilience, finding purpose and mastering transformation, you can purchase his autobiography SURVIVOR, Life in the SAS, available from 25th May 2021.