Insights and Lessons the Air Force Taught Me for a Better Life
By Chaplain, COL USAF (RET) Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman
*This is an article from the Spring 2023 issue of Combat Stress
I am now many years removed from the stresses of Air Force life. Nonetheless, I remember many of the lessons that the military imparted to those who would listen, especially the Type A’s who determined that they didn’t want their careers to end in heart attacks and strokes.
The first of my insights was that there was a direct connection between eating and sleeping in that if one didn’t eat, they would not be able to sleep…. or at least, they would not be able to sleep well. For me, I must add that if I eat too late in the evening, I won’t sleep well either. Connecting somatic elements was and continues to be an important key to dealing with the pressures of daily life.
The second lesson involved getting enough exercise. The Air Force gave us an hour each working day to work out. For me, this involved running on a treadmill or, weather permitting, some outdoor path. The habit has stuck with me over the years, and to this day, I try to put in at least 35 to 45 minutes of treadmill walking, followed by stretching and toning exercises. The fact is that what often seemed unsolvable dilemmas that had arisen in the morning were somehow less daunting after a run and some lunch. At least, they caused less tension and often became more manageable as I jogged and thought about them… even indirectly.
I am not one who found prayer helpful in reducing the stresses of daily life, although I knew some people who did. I frankly put more faith in concentrating on my breathing, a function of having learned biofeedback, than by reciting a set of prayers. The calming influence of closing my eyes and consciously moving the tension down from head to my extremities was extremely helpful, especially at times when I was under great pressure to get a job done.
Learning something about the psychology of winning and monitoring self-talk was another important aspect of controlling stress and using it in constructive ways. Part of making my Air Force career so creative and overall successful was the setting and achieving of personal goals and always celebrating their attainment. The downfall of many workaholics is their inability or unwillingness to stop and relish what they have accomplished. Driving themselves and others without respite is just purely unhealthy. It creates an endlessly stressful environment and too often, leads to burnout.
Short frequent vacations are often the antidote to feeling overtaxed and psychically tired. Taking too long a vacation often leads to greater stress when one returns to what had piled up in one’s absence. Preparing a proper calendar that includes “times out” from the job is beneficial. So too are small breaks in the day, which have recently been found to be restorative.
Lastly, listening to one’s body is critical. Our bodies let us know when life is out of balance. Having an annual physical is an essential element in monitoring and maintaining one’s health. Wondering about anomalies and what may seem to be abnormalities, but doing nothing about them, is simply unwise. If in doubt, seeing a doctor in whom you trust can quiet fears and head off problems by nipping them in the bud.
Stress does not have to be the sole driver in a workday. When managed properly and effectively, it can lead to great productivity. Left to its downsides, stress can lead to a miserable work environment with great detrimental effects.
The fact that I am retired and am still enjoying hiking and skiing into my late seventies is largely due to the habits I learned from what the military taught us. I attribute my relatively pain-free life to the pathway I was able to establish by heeding the simple advice I picked up and was able to apply along the way. I am ever grateful for those insights and lessons.