Healthy Spaces

Coping with the mindset shift of NS

Friends will look out for one another and help one another out. They will make NS life a lot easier and happier.
Friends will look out for one another and help one another out. They will make NS life a lot easier and happier.TNP FILE PHOTO

Joyce Teo finds out what you can do to be mentally prepared for national service

Physical fitness is not the only thing you need in order to thrive in national service (NS). Psychological wellness is equally important.

Late last month, Changi General Hospital ran a first-of-its-kind forum on how to prepare for NS, which included a segment on how to adjust to military life.

The speaker, Dr Tan Sheng Neng, associate consultant, psychological medicine, Changi General Hospital, said a problem that some recruits may face in the early stages is withdrawing into themselves.

"They may have difficulty adjusting to the physical and mental demands of NS training. Hence, they adopt an individualist coping style, segregating themselves from the group," he said.

Others may need help but do not know how to express themselves clearly when talking about their problems.

Dr Tor Phern Chern, consultant, department of general psychiatry, Institute of Mental Health, said that the biggest mental change is moving from an environment that is focused on oneself to an institution that is focused on protecting the greater good. "This is a huge mindset shift in our egocentric society. Not coming to grips with this can make adjustment to NS unnecessarily difficult," he said.

SPEAK TO OTHERS

Speak to people who have served NS and familiarise yourself with what helped them get through it. Nothing beats hearing from people who have actually completed their service.

DR TOR PHERN CHERN, consultant, department of general psychiatry, Institute of Mental Health

Here are tips on how recruits can prepare themselves mentally for NS to make the adjustment easier.

TRAIN YOUR BODY

Get fit. If you are unfit, you will find it hard to cope with the escalating demands of NS training. Falling behind in physical fitness can lead to mental stress, said Dr Tan.

You can start exercising regularly before you enlist for NS. And not just running or doing push-ups, but also sporting activities that you enjoy. A highly recommended activity is swimming, a basic skill required of all recruits in the basic training curriculum, according to the website of the Defence Ministry's Central Manpower Base.

Rock-climbing or archery are also good as they help to train your mental strength, focus and ability to cope under pressure, which are critical for a soldier, it says.

TRAIN YOUR MIND

Be on top of your situation. Before enlisting, know what to expect.

Said Dr Tor: "Speak to people who have served NS and familiarise yourself with what helped them get through it. Nothing beats hearing from people who have actually completed their service."

Understand that setbacks are a part of life

Many of life's challenges can be overcome if one can remain open and flexible, and be willing to adapt, said Dr Tan.

Understanding this will stop the desire to "give up" as a form of coping and developing a depressive illness, he said.

Take control

When faced with an event that is beyond your control, remember that you have the power to make choices that will affect the situation, your ability to cope and your future, said Dr Tan. Knowing this will help to lessen your chances of developing anxiety, he said.

People will feel helpless when they think that things are beyond their control, he said.

"Once they give up, their mood goes down and they will feel miserable. But surprisingly, in every situation, you have a choice."

For instance, this could be taking the first step to speak to an instructor about a problem, he said.

Stay calm in the face of trouble

This will allow you to systematically work on a problem to resolve it, said Dr Tan.

In stressful situations, people sometimes develop tunnel vision, so they fail to observe important details or take advantage of opportunities, he said.

Instead of panicking when faced with a new challenge, think back on the past and remember how you dealt with difficulties, suggested Dr Tan. "When you look at things the logical way, you will be able to find a solution," he said. "Instead of looking at the entire problem, break it up into small steps."

See yourself as a survivor

When dealing with potentially stressful events, look for ways to resolve the problem. You may not be able to avoid it but you can stay focused on a positive outcome, said Dr Tan.

Do not keep to yourself.

Make friends

Friends will look out for one another and help one another out. They will make NS life a lot easier and happier. Your buddies in NS, instructors, friends and family members can all be connections.

Talking about the challenges you are facing can be an excellent way to gain perspective, look for new solutions or simply express your emotions. You should also go for meals together.

"There are certain tasks that you cannot do on your own. You have to work as a team, which is what NS is about," said Dr Ang Yong Guan, a psychiatrist in private practice who is a former head of the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Psychological Care Centre.

If you continue to be alone, people will leave you alone.

You will find that you don't fit in and gradually you may feel sad and anxious. You may then get adjustment disorder, said Dr Ang.

An adjustment disorder, also known as situational depression, is a type of stress-related mental illness that happens when one has a hard time adjusting to a change in one's life.

If you are an introvert, start by making an effort to spend time with your friends and talk to them for up to a year before enlistment, suggested Dr Ang.

Be specific and upfront about your problems, if any

If you have problems, don't keep them to yourself. Recruits who have trouble coping often have problems expressing how they feel. This makes it hard for their trainers, counsellors, doctors or other experts to give them the help they need, Dr Tan said.

He advised recruits not to just say, "I need help. I am in trouble." Instead, describe their situation and how they feel about it.

If the recruit is mentally stressed, they can be referred for counselling, said Dr Ang.

"And if, for instance, your mother is very sick, you can ask permission from the sergeant to go home to see her," he said. "If you don't talk, they won't know."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline 'Coping with the mindset shift of NS'. Print Edition | Subscribe