Dr. Jack Smith
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Clinical and Program Policy and Acting Chief Medical Officer, TRICARE Management Activity
This time of the year can be quite stressful for many people. Just as Thanksgiving dinner is wrapping up, the holiday frenzy shifts into overdrive. The holiday season brings a constant barrage of consumerism, family and social obligations and increased demands on time and energy. To minimize the effects of stress, it is important to avoid an unhealthy indulgence in too much holiday cheer; to practice firm financial restraint in our holiday shopping (lest we suffer BS—”bill shock” come January); and to slow down, relax and enjoy the good tidings the holiday season brings.
Many people ignore these recommendations, however, since stress is generally present in every person’s life. Stress is defined as “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” Well known for his research on stress in the 1950s, Hans Selye stated that “stress is not necessarily something bad; it all depends on how you take it. The stress of exhilarating, creative successful work is beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection is detrimental.”
The Effects of Stress
Stress in small quantities can motivate and help you become more productive, such as in your job. On the other hand, too much stress over an extended period of time can actually harm a person’s mental and physical well-being. Long-term stress sets people up for generally poor health, as well as specific physical or psychological illnesses like infection, heart disease or depression. Persistent and unrelenting stress may lead to conditions, including anxiety, depression and other unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and alcohol or drugs abuse.
People may demonstrate psychological symptoms like anxiety, irritability, loss of temper, fear, frustration, decreased concentration, helplessness, depression, anger, sleeping difficulties and nightmares. Physical symptoms are usually characterized by a rapid or irregular heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, rapid breathing, dizziness, muscle tension, fatigue, headaches, sweating, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, jitteriness and abdominal pain—which may be the only symptom of stress in a child.
The mission of the armed forces, specifically combat duty, brings with it significant stress for both uniformed members and their families. Military duty carries stress unique to the military way of life through situations, such as frequent moves (e.g., uprooting family ties), temporary duty assignments (disruption in family routines) and deployments (prolonged family separations). During the current war environment, prolonged deployments have taken a particularly heavy toll on families. Military psychologists report that stress related to deployments occurs in three stages:
- Predeployment – includes uncertainties about time and length of deployment, uncertain expectations of outcomes, fear of physical harm, and/or death and separation anxiety;
- Deployment – includes many of the predeployment phase stressors plus physical separation and lack of communication and social support among family members; and
- Reunion – while families experience relief and joy during the reunion, both uniformed members and their families must come to terms with their feelings and wartime experiences and changes in routines or “life as it was” when the spouse/parent returns home.
Stress Management Techniques
There are a variety of proven techniques or skills for stress management that will help during high pressure situations and help avoid the problems of potential long-term stress. Stress management skills can be categorized into three main groups:
- Action-oriented skills: Actions in which you seek to confront the problem causing the stress, often changing either the environment or the situation;
- Emotionally-oriented skills: Actions in which you do not have the power to change the situation, but you can manage stress by changing your perception of the situation and the way you approach it; and
- Acceptance-oriented skills: Actions in which something has happened in which you have neither power nor control and so you focus on just surviving the stress.
Strategies for managing stress may include one or more of the following actions:
- Understanding what stress is and identifying the stressors in your life to order to reduce, manage and try to avoid it;
- Living a fit and healthy lifestyle by eating right and exercising regularly;
- Learning to strike a balance between personal, family, and work life;
- Applying mental relaxation techniques like yoga, mental imagery, meditation, biofeedback, using music, and hypnosis; and
- Applying physical relaxation techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscular relaxation and/or personal hobbies/interests.
We want to wish everyone a happy, healthy and safe holiday season. Taking the steps outlined above may assist in managing the stress related to the holidays and help to develop the skills to manage stress throughout the rest of the year.