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How physiologic stress-management training can help your relationships at home

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The skills that allow one to calm the body’s physiologic response to stress can also be applied to other areas—most notably, in one’s relationships.

Being in stressful situations activates the body’s physiologic stress response, which is what allows Warfighters the ability to respond to any threat at any time. In the sports world, the stress response is associated with the adrenaline rush that pumps athletes up during competitions, and gives them the edge to win.

Unlike athletes, however, Warfighters are a select group who operate in stressful situations day in and day out. Prolonged exposure to stressful situations has been found to be harmful both physically and psychologically, unless one learns how to successfully manage one’s internal response. To that end, there are programs throughout the uniformed services that teach Warfighters combat stress management techniques. Many use a stoplight system—utlizing the colors green, yellow, and red—to teach Warfighters how to calm the stress response and bring the body back into balance, in order to give it a reprieve. Successful warfighters learn these skills and apply them in theater.

These same skills, which allow one to calm the body’s physiologic response to stress, can also be applied to other areas—most notably, in one’s relationships. The stress response triggered by external threats is the same stress response that is activated during emotionally-charged conflicts with someone you care about (although the degree of stress is different). Conflict between two people creates the same internal stress, coupled with a flood of negative emotions. The techniques learned to manage combat stress are techniques that can also help Warfighters in their personal relationships.

A recent study examined 149 couples in a 15-minute discussion about a marital conflict found that positive emotions helped couples regulate, or calm, their physiologic responses after the conversation. Interestingly, how happy the individual was with their relationship did not impact this finding. This indicates that positive emotions seem to have the ability to “undo” the physiologic arousal of conflict.

The next time you get in a fight with someone you care about, try this: stop, take yourself out of the situation, and start thinking positive thoughts—either about yourself, something else, or your partner. Notice whether you feel calmer, if your body temperature decreased, if your heart rate slowed down, and if your body moved less (we tend to move more when we are upset). You might find this to be an excellent addition not only to your combat stress strategies, but also to your positive relationship strategies.

Source: Yuan, J., McCarthy, M., Holley, S. & Levenson, R. (2010). Physiologic down-regulation and positive emotion in marital interaction. Emotion, 10(4), 467-474.

The "Michelangelo phenomenon" of relationships

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Known as the Michelangelo phenomenon, partners can help sculpt each other’s best possible self and achieve goals. Through affirmation and support, couples can help each other achieve their goals. Listen to your partner and dream together while encouraging each other. Reach for the stars together!

Healthy relationship conflict.

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In all relationships, conflict management is often a key ingredient for success.

In all relationships, conflict management is often a key ingredient for success. However, the old belief that the best relationships are those without conflict is being replaced with the new understanding that conflict is normal in intimate relationships. The happiest couples, come to find out, are those who manage conflict without being destructive to each other.

Interestingly, research of couples problems over time shows that 31 percent of the problems couples deal with are solvable, and 69 percent are perpetual problems - so being able to manage differences over time is key to marital happiness!

Dr. John Gottman, having studied couples for over 20 years, found that there are key ingredients for relationship happiness:

  • Having a strong friendship with your spouse.
  • Being able to manage conflict in the relationship (and knowing which problems are solvable).
  • Avoiding destructive behavior like criticism, contempt, defensiveness or ignoring your spouse.
  • Building dreams and shared meaning with each other.

For military couples in particular, the ability to problem-solve and manage conflict is key to relationship happiness. Fortunately, problem-solving and conflict management are essential ingredients for Warfighter success. Through pre-deployment training, deployment, and reset, Warfighters within each branch learn key strategies for how to manage their emotions, identify problems, develop friendships, share memories together and map strategies for optimal outcomes - all of which are skills that can help foster great family relationships.

However, while deployed, each partner can change in ways that their spouse might not be aware of (both in theater and at home). That’s why making the effort to get to know each other again (even if you've been together for 50 years) is an important part of relationship happiness over time.

Take some time to ask your partner questions like:

  • What attracted you to me when we first met?
  • Who are your best friends at this point?
  • What would you like to see happen for us in the next five years?
  • What about yourself are you most proud of?

Questions like these can help foster friendship and positive feelings between you, and keep building dreams for a happy relationship and future together.

Source: These strategies were discussed at the recent American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists conference in September. Specific ideas from Dr. John Gottman's keynote speech, as well as Dr. Robert O'Brien's workshop on "Research-based Conflict Management After Combat Trauma," were used.

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Key elements to make remarriage work

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The American Psychological Association offers strategies to make blended families work.

The American Psychological Association offers strategies to make blended families work:

  • Have your own identity separate from your spouse and children.
  • Maintain some autonomy in relationships while building togetherness through intimacy and identity.
  • Maintain time for a rich sexual relationship that is safe from work and family intrusions.
  • Be flexible in dealing with issues - life is unpredictable.
  • Use humor to keep perspective.
  • Remember how you felt falling in love and keep those images and feelings alive.

See the American Psychological Association site for more information.

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Deal with emotional cycles of deployment

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Learning about the emotional stages of deployment can help couples cope.

Hooah 4 Health describes the "7 Emotional Cycles of Deployment" for couples - that both the deployed partner and one at home experience. At first, there is anticipation of departure, then detachment and withdrawal. This can lead to feelings of emotional disorganization. Over time, each partner copes with the deployment so that recovery and stabilization occur. Then, anticipation of  the partner's return can start the countdown to deployment’s end. Once back home, partners adjust and renegotiate their roles and can be completely reintegrated and stabilized within a few months. These stages are discussed in detail at the Hooah4Health website.

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Family matters post-deployment

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Social support after deployment significantly decreases symptoms of PTSD and depression, a recent study found. Individuals who have emotional support from family, friends, coworkers, employers, and community members had less PTSD and depression. Warfighters who received social support immediately following deployment reported substantially reduced symptoms.

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Family matters on the homefront

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A study of National Guard reserve troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families, identified five stressors experienced by family members.

A study of National Guard reserve troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families, identified five stressors experienced by family members: worrying, waiting, going it alone, pulling double duty, and loneliness.

What helped these families most? Keeping busy and involved in activities at home, using technology to stay in touch, and staying connected to each other on a daily or weekly basis.

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Family matters on the homefront

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Tips to help decrease the stress before deployment.

Harmony on the homefront helps ease deployment stress on Warfighters and their families. One Army spouse shares her tips for decreasing stress during deployment:

  1. Gather important documents before deployment.
  2. Identify possible problems and discuss them ahead of time.
  3. Tape an enlarged photo of the deployed parent in the car, and don't lose sight of the big picture, which as she describes as "come home safe and sound, to an intact family."

Click here to read the full article and see more tips.

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Optimize your relationships!

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Everyone can benefit from learning relationship enhancement skills.

In our previous post, we talked about why family relationships are important for Warfighter performance. This week, we’ve identified strategies for enhancing one’s relationships, based on the latest research we’ve read. Just like our bodies, relationships can be made stronger with training.

Think about adding the following strategies to your “relationship fitness plan.” They can be used in any close relationship: with your partner, your child, other family, or friends.

1) Relationships need work before problems arise. Many programs, like the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program and the One Shot One Kill v2.0 Resilience Program, address this concept of prevention. Just as you don’t start training for combat the day before a mission, you shouldn’t start relationship training after issues arise. Your relationship fitness plan should include practicing these behaviors:

Appreciate your loved ones through words or deeds.

Obey the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. When in a fight, stop and ask yourself what the true message is behind the other person’s words.

Listening openly rather than reacting to angry behavior can head off an argument.

Communicate using “I-statements,” rather than blaming statements beginning with “you.” Start with an “I” and clearly state what you want to say from your perspective.

Keep negative comments and interactions to a minimum. For every one negative comment or interaction, five positive ones are needed to balance it out.

Soften your “start-up.” Conversations that turn into fights can be predicted from the start of the conversation. If a conversation begins with angry tones, high-pitched voices, or aggressive behavior, it can quickly escalate into an argument.

Keep things in perspective. Focus on the bright side.

Have fun. Remember to laugh together and have fun.

2) Relationship problems don’t go away by ignoring them. Being proactive by addressing recurring problems can go a long way towards fewer problems and creating less stress in the long run.

3) Timing is everything. Be strategic about when you address problems. When emotions are high, you’re more likely to say things without first thinking them through. With sensitive issues, take a break and address the issue when everyone is calm. At the very least, break from the argument for the time it would take to drink a glass of water.

4) Practice good relationship skills during the good times, so you’re prepared in difficult times. Just as Warfighters constantly train in order to be prepared for the difficulties they might encounter, relationship skills require practice before they’re put to the test in stressful situations.

The above strategies can help your relationships be positive forces in your life – and with less stress and more love, you can handle the rest of your life better.

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Why are family relationships important for Warfighter performance?

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The awareness that family well-being is crucial to Warfighter readiness and success is growing.

The awareness that family well-being is crucial to Warfighter readiness and success is growing. Admiral Mullen’s talk at the Total Fitness Conference in December centered on the importance of the family for total Warfighter fitness. There are numerous programs designed to support the Warfighter’s family – from Family Readiness Groups to advice and counseling services. But other than the common knowledge that military life can be hard on families, why are family relationships so important to Warfighter performance?

For many of us, everything we do, all the choice and decisions we make, are with our families in mind (be it parents, spouses, children, or siblings). This is because relationships enrich our lives. At the same time, relationships can be a double-edged sword – while happy and supportive relationships help people deal with stress better, unsupportive relationships with lots of fighting are a source of stress. In fact, being in a difficult relationship can go beyond just being a source of stress – relationships can impact your health for better or for worse. People in supportive and loving relationships are in better health, rebound from pain and trauma faster, and heal faster than those in unsupportive and negative relationships.

Now imagine the impact a personal relationship filled with a lot of conflict could have on a Warfighter’s ability to be successful in theater, and on returning home from a demanding tour.

The military lifestyle, with its long and stressful deployments and multiple moves, can take a toll even on the best relationships. But stepping outside of the military for a moment, relationship happiness is a major problem for most Americans. Divorce statistics in this country speak for the state of most relationships, and surveys show that of the 50 percent of couples who stay married, less than half report actually being happy with their spouse.

The good news about relationships, though, is that they can improve!

Learning the relationship skills that strengthen families and ease problem areas is something everyone can do. The saying “relationships take work” is true, but the work we put in can powerfully benefit all of our relationships. The importance of these skills is recognized by the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which focuses on prevention and enhancing family relationships as key components of Warfighter performance and success.

In next week's blog, the HPRC will identify what we think are the best strategies for enhancing one’s relationships, based on the research we’ve read. Just like our bodies, relationships also need daily training for optimal fitness. Check back next week for what we think should be in everyone’s “relationship fitness plan.”


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