BY JENNIFER WOODWORTH, PSY.D
It’s no surprise that chronic or unexpected stress can lead to physical and/or mental health problems. And, as a military family, you might feel that sometimes you are barely keeping your head above water, let alone pulling ahead. Current medical research shows a connection between a feeling of general well-being and overall positive physical and mental health. This article focuses on the stressors that military families may encounter, how they can impact physical and mental health, and ways that you can mediate your stress.
STRESSORS YOU MAY ENCOUNTER: HOW THEY RELATE TO PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
When asked what their main stressors are, besides deployment, here are the responses given from wives of active duty military members. They are listed in order of most cited to least cited by spouses who responded.
Being far away from family. Feeling that you have a lack of social support either physically near you, or someone who can listen to your current struggles, can contribute to feelings of isolation. Research shows that when someone perceives that they have limited support in times of stress, their selfreported, overall sense of well-being declines. 1
Finances. Financial concerns top many families’ lists as a stressor. Sometimes, just the thought of talking with your spouse about finances can cause anxiety and tension; therefore it tends to be avoided. This in turn can cause more strain in the relationship, especially since many military families are barely making ends meet. However, finances are not the only benefit to employment. Employment can increase selfesteem, can create greater access to resources, and may increase life satisfaction overall.
Inconsistent work schedule. The inconsistent work schedule of the military may contribute to feelings of frustration, annoyance, and anger at your active duty service member or even by the active duty member themselves. Not only may shifts vary, but may change at the last minute and damper scheduled plans. Putting the job first, being a service member “24/7”, and “taking care of their own” (as one Marine wife noted) always takes priority over family.
Time away. Deployments are just a part of time away from the family. Work-ups, trainings, field work, or any other time away from the family can cause discord between the couple or disrupt parent-child relationships. Also, research on separation has shown that the longer the amount of time spent away, the more likely for the spouse at home’s psychological health to decline.1 This might seem common sense, yet often unacknowledged and common physical or mental health symptoms are ignored.
Not knowing/Out of the loop. Lack of control of a situation can heighten feelings of worry, fear, and anxiety. Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and agitation may not always be recognized as a mental health issue and therefore not addressed appropriately. These symptoms can be experienced by anyone in the family.
Lack of intimacy. Feeling disconnected from your spouse, whether due to deployment or work schedule, can lead to feelings of loneliness, frustration, and sadness. Physical intimacy is just one way that you may connect as a couple; you may also feel disconnected emotionally. The emotional connection ties into feeling supported, encouraged, and understood in your relationship role.
Constant transition. Deployment is just part of the cycle of a military family, as you probably know. The constant transition between phases of deployment is not only physically demanding, but emotionally demanding on everyone in the family. Transition can also mean moving, training, adding or losing a family member, changing schools, or having new neighbors move in. Unfortunately, the transitions cannot always be planned for and therefore can catch you off guard, connecting back to the stressor of inconsistent schedules or lack of knowledge about future plans.
Visit the link in the resources section that connects to an article describing the seven emotional stages of deployment.
Children’s behavior. Children feel stress, too. Research has shown that children often look to and react like their primary caregiver in times of stress, usually their mother. Therefore it follows that if you, as a parent, are having a reaction to stressors you are experiencing, the chances are likely that your child(ren) are learning to manage their stressors in the same manner. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it is also likely you might be focusing on negative behavior or become irritated with behavior that usually would not bother you, causing increased tension in your relationship with your child.
Physical illness/injury. Not being able to do things you typically have been able to do can lead to feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, and sadness. It could be an acute, short term type of injury that will heal with time, or chronic pain that you will have to manage over the course of many years. Either way, pain impacts mood in a negative way, and therefore may affect your motivation, communication, sleep and/or appetite.
PAY ATTENTION TO THESE SIGNS
Changes in sleep. Trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, or sleeping more than usual could be a sign that you are feeling anxious or depressed. Not only does a lack of sleep cause irritability, but it can contribute to decreased ability to concentrate, focus, and make informed decisions. Lack of sleep may also lead to weight gain and an increase in depressive symptoms.
Changes in appetite. If your appetite increases or decreases substantially over a period of time, this may be an indication that your circumstances have become increasingly demanding. Appetite impacts what you are feeding your body, and therefore your weight; so pay particular attention to an unintended increase or decrease in your weight.
Communication with others. Pay attention to the amount of time you spend communicating with your friends or family. If you find yourself withdrawing from your normal amount of communication, look at the reason behind the change (too tired, do not feel like talking, feeling angry). Also, consider the way you are communicating with others and ask yourself the following questions: Has your communication style changed to being more passive or demanding? Are you more or less likely to engage in conversation with others than usual? What is the content of your discussions? Lack of motivation to do the things you normally do. Keep track if you have been feeling overwhelmed or sad for more than a few days, have begun to decline invitations to meet friends or attend events, or are not taking pleasure in activities that you usually would. This could be a symptom of depression and should be acknowledged as a signal that you may need to reach out for assistance to friends, family, or a medical professional.
Physical illness. Headaches, stomach cramps, fatigue, muscle tension, getting a common cold, and other physical ailments can be signals that your body is feeling overwhelmed and may be suffering from fatigue or excessive stress.
Substance use. Using substances more than you used to can be a sign that you are feeling overwhelmed. This could include caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, over-the-counter or prescription medication used to relieve pain or anxiety, as well as non-prescription medication. The use of this “quick fix” might feel helpful in the moment, however can become yet another stressor in the long term.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Even though you have little, or no, control over some of the stressors you are facing, there are some ways that you can do in managing the stress and attempt to maintain balance.
Physical check-up. If you are experiencing any of the signs of distress listed above, make an appointment to see your primary care physician. At the appointment be sure to discuss any changes that you have noticed (fatigue, weight change, appetite, sleep, mood) in order to have appropriate lab testing completed to rule out any health issues that could be contributing to experiencing the symptoms. You can also be evaluated by a mental health professional for stress management techniques or managing other mental health concerns.
Exercise. Moderately intense aerobic exercise has been linked to a decrease in anxiety and depressive symptoms such as stress relief, mood improvement, reduction of fatigue, increased mental alertness, and increased interest in sex. It also has positive physical impact, including improved sleep, increased energy and stamina, weight reduction, and reduced cholesterol.2
Since there are almost a limitless amount of activities to choose from, find a routine that works for your schedule, interest and fitness level.
Positive thinking. Reframing your thinking and listing the positive aspects of the situation can assist in connecting with the moment. When facing a stressor, keeping positive thought processes can impact the way you view choices, make decisions, and benefit your overall mood.
Attending religious services/groups. Attending a spiritual group can bring a sense of connectedness and community support when facing a stressor. Feelings of being a part of a group, exploring positive emotions and faith are associated with protection against psychological distress.3
Spending time with friends. Scheduling in time with your friends is important in building relationships and assists in creating support during times of increased stress.
Relaxing. Watching television or binging on Netflix can be a much needed mini-escape from your responsibilities. Taking a bath, massage, or reading are other ways used to relax. Time together as a couple. Scheduling in time as a couple is important in maintaining a relationship. Engaging in discussions not only about family or finances, but also local or world events is important in staying connected.
Hobbies. Find an activity that you enjoy doing (knit/crochet, paint, design, build) and schedule time into your week for that activity. This can add a sense of accomplishment if you have been working on a project and allow time for personal creativity.
An example of how some of these stressors relate to physical and mental health:
Carla was a recreational runner who enjoyed her time training for short races; using the time as a way to increase her health and recharge to care for her children. After years of running, she injured her knee, yet was unable to get an explanation for her pain from medical professionals. Carla was in constant pain which made her irritable and frustrated that she could not exercise. She described herself being short tempered and that her communication with her husband and children become more demanding. Instead of looking for alternative exercise regimens, Carla used food as a stress reliever after a long day, which led to significant weight gain. She felt unsupported by her family, who did not live in the area, and her husband was away constantly away from the family due to training exercises. The weight gain intensified her frustration and low mood, contributing to increased irritability with her family and decreased motivation in completing household chores. After five months of pain and attempts at various rehabilitation strategies that were unsuccessful at relieving her pain, Carla accepted that she could not run. She began an alternative exercise regimen that did not involve impact on her knee. Her mood began to improve as she recognized the activities she could engage in and she began to feel physically stronger. As her mood improved, her interactions with her family changed and she was able to manage additional stressors with a more positive attitude.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jennifer Woodworth is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Vista, CA. She has worked in the mental health field for seven years. Her husband is retired from the Marine Corps and she has three children ages six, eight, and ten.
1. Orthner, D. K. and Rose, R. (2009), Work Separation Demands and Spouse Psychological Well-Being. Family Relations, 58: 392–403. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2009.00561.x
2. Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/
3. Levin, Jeff. (2010). Religion and Mental Health: Theory and Research. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalitic Studies. DOI: 10.1002/aps.240. Retrieved from: http://www.baylorisr.