You're 11 years old, standing in the middle of the school lunchroom with your meal tray. As you gaze over top of your sandwich, anemic vegetables, and cookie snack pack, you anxiously wonder who will make room for you at their table.
Whether we're 11, 27, or 80, our human bodies read social anxiety like a physical threat. Will you be able to find and keep food? Experience physical safety? Find meaning in work and life? Throughout history, all of these things have been made exponentially more difficult without a tribe or group.
Today, we know that being disconnected from others and feeling lonely is extremely dangerous to your health. In fact, it's even more dangerous than smoking.
Think Sparta, Not Lone Wolf
Stress hormones surge when you're feeling lonely or rejected, and when they're elevated too long, you may begin to have difficulty communicating, displaying empathy, or engaging in high-level thinking. This makes connecting with others even more challenging, and your isolation can easily become self-perpetuating.
The good news is, you can increase your health and performance at work and home by finding or building a tribe.
The strange but true fact is that there's nothing more important to your physical health than community. This is true even if you're an introvert. It's true even if your tribe embraces unhealthy behaviors like smoking, high rates of divorce, alcohol abuse and more.
Staff Sgt. Robert George, a military training instructor at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, marches his unit following the issuance of uniforms and gear. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)
In the military, your tribe is easy to identify. Your tribe may be your branch of service, unit, platoon, or even fireteam. From the first day of training, you and other members of your tribe are working to overcome challenges together. Camaraderie continues as you train, deploy, and socialize together in the coming years.
In Gates of Fire, his epic novel about the Spartan 300, Steven Pressfield writes:
"War, and preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love...There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods."
For many, military service offers the kind of community they've never experienced. In this community, we may find purpose, self-knowledge, identity, and so much more. Challenged by our tribe, we grow stronger, faster, and ideally into better leaders.
However, when we inevitably leave the military, we may find ourselves unmoored - adrift in a sea of isolation and alienation that threatens to sink us into depression, stress, and declining performance at work and home.
Crossing the Chasm
In the age of an all-volunteer military, we often hear about the military-civilian divide. It's not just a divide, though - it's a chasm.
If you're a male veteran, only about 12 percent of peers in your age group have served in the military. If you're a woman who served, that number drops to 3 percent.
Female soldiers negotiate obstacles during the U.S. Army Special Operations Command's cultural support program which prepares all-female Soldier teams to serve as enablers supporting Army special operations combat forces. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Klika)
When you leave the military you'll likely struggle to find people who have a deep understanding of your service, experiences, and the unique culture and traditions of military life. Data shows us that alienation - or feeling out of place - is strongly correlated with PTSD and other stress injuries. Finding or building a tribe is critical to good physical, relational, and mental health.
When you're part of a group and have a deep sense of belonging, a relaxation response takes place in your body and brain. In fact, every system of your body works better when your relaxation response firing. For example, when you're relaxed and eating a salad, your body absorbs 17 percent more iron than when you're stressed and eating a salad. Being part of a community results in a positive cycle.
So how do I find a tribe?
As you begin your search for a tribe, one of the most important things you can do is stay humble. Don't let your veteran status, and all the good things that come with it, become a limiting factor as you build new relationships. Build relationships with veterans and civilians alike.
On the veteran front, give yourself permission to be around people who understand what you've just lived through. A great starting place is any post-9/11 veteran organization - they'll get you connected with veterans who are in a healthy place.
Team Red White and Blue's entire mission is to build social community at the local level - to bring people together. Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues can help you discover purpose through service.
Purpose is also key. Ask yourself what your passion, ideal volunteer work, or dream venture looks like, then get to work. You may find your civilian tribe doing volunteer work, as part of a faith group, or while living your purpose-driven life.
Finding your tribe may feel tough at first, but like most things it gets easier with practice.
CHECK OUT THESE TRIBES
- Volunteer with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response nonprofit, to rebuild communities around the nation after natural disasters.
- Meet up with civilians and fellow veterans for a hike, run, or yoga class with Team Red White & Blue.
- Put your unique skills to use for a local non-profit, and get paid doing it, as part of The Mission Continues.
- Check out a faith community of your choosing
- Sign up for a local sports league or class
About the Author
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is a U.S. Marine veteran and wellness coach who writes about resilience building, creating strong communities, and the science of spirituality. You can find her new book, "Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior's Battle for Balance", here.