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Making light of darker days

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You don’t have to let the cooler weather and darker days get you down.

It’s almost time to turn the clock back, and for some people, this time of year signals darker days ahead. Shorter days and less exposure to light are no longer thought to directly cause increases in depressive disorders. However, you might still observe noticeable shifts in your mood, behavior, motivation, and even your diet and physical activity routines during this time of year. The increasing darkness and downshift in temperature don’t have to mean the same for your well-being. If falling back is a time you dread, try these tips to create light in the darker days:

  • Take care of yourself. Remember that optimal performance requires recovery. Autumn is the perfect opportunity to take time for yourself. Bank some sleep before you have to run around or travel for the holidays. Get in a few extra workouts so you can savor a piece of pie at Thanksgiving dinner without the side of guilt. Rest now so that you can be resilient later.
  • Set new SMART goals. You don’t have to wait until the New Year to set resolutions. This is a great time of year to assess the goals you want to work toward in the coming year and begin establishing daily habits early, long before the ball drops in Times Square. Doing an azimuth check now can help to keep you on track through the busy holiday season and reignite a sense of purpose.
  • Perspective matters. Some of the reasons why you might feel sluggish and unmotivated during of the change in season are a proxy of your expectations: You think you’re supposed to feel that way, and so you do. Try shifting your lens. Are there things you can look forward to in the winter? Maybe you want to dig into that book you’ve put aside? Break out your snowboard and plan a trip? Focusing on what you’re anticipating rather than what you dread can make a world of difference.

Fall and winter don’t have to become the seasons of your discontent. The grass will be greener when things warm up again, but make sure you take advantage of now to enhance your well-being.

Write your way to well-being

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Learn how writing can help you ward off depression and enhance well-being.

If you find it difficult to share when you’re feeling down or anxious about something in your life, writing can help you make sense of an experience on your own. It isn’t easy to reach out when you’re going through tough times. You might prefer keeping struggles private or feel that there isn’t anyone you can turn to who might really understand.

Writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings can be an effective tool to help you process your stressful events. Writing can help you direct attention to causes of distress and raise awareness of the impact they have on you—emotional, behavioral, or physiological. By helping you express emotions you might want to suppress or avoid, the process can put distance between you and your thoughts, giving you an opportunity to evaluate or restructure your story.

Writing also can help reduce depressive symptoms, improve immune function, and enhance well-being. It can help ease the transition for veterans returning home and experiencing reintegration problems, and it might increase marital satisfaction for Warfighters returning home after high combat exposure.

So how do you do it? When you’re feeling stressed or anxious or just struggling to make sense of something, find 15–20 minutes to write. Include your take on the situation at hand. Reflect on how it’s impacting you and what you’re doing to get by. Use writing as a space to say what you can’t say to anyone else. The format doesn’t matter—on a piece of paper, inside a journal, or in a digital document. While writing, you might notice that you’ve developed a different perspective on events. You might identify a silver lining to a difficult experience. You might highlight effective and ineffective ways you’re coping, helping you take further action to seek help or use those strategies in the future. Sometimes it helps to do this over 3 or 4 consecutive days.

And remember: If you’re continually struggling or feeling more distressed even after writing, consider seeking help through a mental health professional or other resource.

Total fitness fights depression

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Learn how your total fitness approach to fighting depression can help you optimize your performance and give your best to the force.

Depression can impact your mood and performance, preventing you from doing your best at work, on a mission, and at home. A total fitness approach—including physical activity, proper nutrition, positive relationships with others, and mind-body skills—to overcoming depression can reduce feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness and lack of motivation or energy, so you can perform well on your mission.

It’s estimated that about 12% of deployed military personnel and 13% of those previously deployed meet the criteria for depression. And many more service members struggle with bouts of misery or restlessness. A total force fitness approach can help. Read more...

Military moms with postpartum depression

Military moms, like all moms, are at risk of postpartum depression after giving birth. Support and resources are available to help you cope.

Motherhood can be hard for military moms with postpartum depression (PPD), especially those who juggle a demanding career while parenting. You might wonder how you’ll manage your new parenting responsibilities with work. The good news is support is available, so you don’t have to struggle alone.

PPD affects nearly 15% of all women who give birth. While some moms might have the “baby blues” shortly after childbirth, others can experience more severe PPD that lasts much longer. You might feel worthless, lose interest in your baby, or eat and sleep too much or too little. Moms with PPD also can have memory problems, doubt their mothering skills, or lose pleasure in activities they once enjoyed.

Being a pregnant service member can be challenging too. You often have to manage long work hours throughout your pregnancy. And some expectant moms choose to keep their pregnancy-related emotions “in check,” fearing negative reactions from coworkers. Enlisted female service members also tend to be younger and have less support. Some might have unplanned pregnancies. You’re also at increased risk of PPD if you have a history of depression, marital problems, stress, or a very fussy baby.

PPD might be preventable if you know the warning signs and where to get help. There are many useful resources—including health care, breastfeeding support, and childcare—to help you cope. And check with your installation about new parent support programs and other health and wellness activities offered through Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs. Military moms now get 12 weeks of paid parental leave, so use this time to take care of your baby and yourself.

Seek military and family life counseling to improve your mental health and well-being too. And visit HPRC’s Pregnancy page to learn more about pre- and post-natal care.

World Suicide Prevention Day

World Suicide Prevention Day is on September 10. Know what to say and how to help a suicidal family member, friend, or colleague.

Suicide is preventable if you know the warning signs, what to say, and who to contact for help. This is why this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day theme is “Connect, Communicate, Care.” Over 800,000 people die by suicide worldwide each year. Someone you know might be in crisis if he or she:

  • Directly expresses wanting to die.
  • Talks about feeling hopeless or trapped, having no reason to live, or being a burden to others.
  • Isolates himself or herself and withdraws from relationships.
  • Experiences sleep problems, mood and behavior swings, anxiety, frustration, or recklessness.

If you suspect someone is suicidal, take action by addressing your concerns directly, while also staying calm and empathetic. Try saying:

  • “I noticed you’ve mentioned a few times how hopeless you feel. Let’s talk more about that.”
  • “You don’t seem as happy or engaged as you used to be. And you spend most of your time alone in your room. This has me concerned.”
  • “Are you thinking of ending your life?”
  • “Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself?”
  • “I’m worried because I care so much about you and want you to know help is available. Let’s figure this out together.”

While someone’s pain might not always be obvious, knowing the signs and feeling confident you can find the words to address your concerns is essential. If you’re a parent worried about your child’s or teen’s suicidal thoughts or behaviors, know what to look for. And if your children were exposed to a family member’s suicide attempt, talk with them about it.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website offers good information and helpful resources. Also, Military OneSource offers support and services to improve your friend, colleague, or loved one’s mental health and well-being. If you feel someone is experiencing a potentially life-threatening problem, contact the Military Crisis Line online or call 800-273-8255 and press “1,” or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by phone at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) also has a 24/7 Outreach Center featuring a hotline, email, chat, and phone number. And visit HPRC’s Suicide Prevention page. In an emergency, please dial 911.

Preventing veteran suicides

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Learn more about what the VA is doing to help veterans at risk of suicide.

In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day. And after recently reviewing 55 million veteran records from 1979 to 2014, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determined those who are older, middle-aged, and female are most at risk. However, the VA is ramping up its efforts to help save veterans’ lives.

Suicide rates also are much higher among veterans than civilians. For example, suicide risk among veterans was 21% higher than civilians in 2014. The good news is the VA continues to shape policy and work towards meeting its suicide-prevention goals, including:

  • Expanding crisis lines and telemental health services
  • Identifying at-risk veterans who can benefit from early intervention
  • Improving mental health services for women
  • Providing telephone-coaching support for veterans and their families
  • Deploying mobile apps that can help veterans manage their mental health issues

“Every veteran suicide is a tragic outcome and regardless of the rates, one veteran suicide is one too many,” according to the VA. For accurate diagnosis, or to simply check in with a caring professional, consider consulting a qualified mental health therapist. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website offers good information and helpful resources. Also, Military OneSource offers support and services to improve your mental health and well-being.

If you feel you're experiencing a potentially life-threatening problem, contact the Military Crisis Line online or call 800-273-8255 and press “1,” or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by phone at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) also has a 24/7 Outreach Center featuring a hotline, email, chat, and phone number. And visit HPRC’s Suicide Prevention page. In an emergency, please dial 911.

Your military child’s mental health

This Mental Health Month, think about your kids’ emotional wellness and how you can best nurture their mental health.

Military kids are resilient in the face of unique challenges, but also might need extra emotional support along the way. They can experience struggles other children don’t face, such as their parents’ deployment. We don’t know the entire impact a parent’s deployment has on children, but some younger children seem to struggle more post-deployment. And kids mental health problems tend to increase when a parent returns injured.

Some parents or caregivers might see signs of anxiety in 3–5-year-olds with a parent on long-term deployment. These symptoms could include kids expressing lots of worries and repeatedly asking for reassurance. Some might also complain of physical symptoms, such as a headache or stomachache. Yet it’s also possible that some don’t experience any physical or emotional distress during their parent’s deployment. Overall, military kids tend to be resilient when a parent is deployed.

Still, military kids, like all kids, sometimes experience mental health concerns, including thoughts of suicide, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and cognitive and mood disorders. The percentage of military kids diagnosed with one or more concerns has increased over the past several years. This mirrors what’s happening in civilian families, possibly because pediatricians are getting better at diagnosing and/or referring children for mental health care. 

If you suspect your child needs help, supports and resources are available. Consider using Military OneSource’s confidential video non-medical counseling services for active duty families, including kids and teens. Your children also can connect with other military kids at Military Kids Connect. This site offers help for kids coping with a parent’s deployment too.

In the meantime, visit HPRC’s Family Resilience section for tips on managing family stress and improving family relationships, which are important for kids’ strong mental health.

Feeling stressed? Help is available.

HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships, Mind Body
May is Mental Health Month. Learn more about assessing your own mental health and getting help.

The demands of deployment and combat can be stressful. It’s important to know that, if it gets to be too much for you to handle, you can get help. Here are some ways to find it.

Returning home, you might feel that nothing’s changed since you left, or you could have a rougher transition and experience sadness, sleep problems, anxiety, anger, heightened emotions, edginess, and/or trouble focusing. These are common and normal reactions to being in theater, but they can potentially be signs of mental health concerns too.

So when should you seek help? You can first use a mental health-screening tool that can guide you in the right direction. The assessment is free, anonymous, and available to service members and their families. However, it’s not intended as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

For accurate diagnosis, or to simply check in with a caring professional, consider consulting a qualified mental health therapist. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website offers good information and helpful resources. Also, Military OneSource offers support and services to improve your mental health and well-being. If you feel you're experiencing a potentially life-threatening problem, contact the Military Crisis Line online or call 800-273-8255 and press “1,” or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by phone at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) also has a 24/7 Outreach Center featuring a hotline, email, chat, and phone number. And visit HPRC’s Suicide Prevention page. In an emergency, please dial 911.

Be proactive in addressing your mental health. And if you’re ever concerned about safety, err on the side of caution.

Brain injury and memory problems

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Many service members have been affected by traumatic brain injuries. Some have memory problems too. Learn more.

Since 2000, around 350,000 service members have been affected by traumatic brain injuries. TBI often impacts memory, especially short-term memory. Think of long-term memory and short-term memory as “holding bins” for information. Your long-term memory can hold information from several days to decades, while your short-term memory retains information for just a few seconds. And short-term memory is closely associated with working memory (your ability to manipulate information in your head) and sustained attention (your ability to maintain focus).

When memory problems strike, short-term memory, working memory, and sustained attention tend to suffer before long-term memory does. Regardless of cause, memory of a remote event stands out more than newer events because your mind has “rehearsed” the older event repeatedly, essentially embedding it in your brain through repetition. By comparison, your mind hasn’t yet “learned” the newer event. For example, you might recall every detail of combat stories but have difficulty remembering what you ate for lunch. In this case, brain connections that rehearsed the combat story have become solidified, while connections responsible for learning this new information haven’t formed yet.

Depending on the location and nature of the injury, your brain might work differently than it did in the past. This could happen because brain cells that used to “communicate” with each other easily are now being rerouted.

Short-term memory, working memory, and sustained attention also can be affected by other factors such as stress, distraction, poor sleep, depression, anxiety, and/or body toxins. The cause isn’t always obvious. Your doctor can help sort it out, answer questions about your condition, treatment, and prognosis, and refer you to a neuropsychologist for further evaluation. In the meantime, you might find HPRC’s TBI resources useful too.

How post-traumatic stress affects your brain

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Understanding how your brain works might help you better understand post-traumatic stress. Learn more about effective treatments.

Sometimes just understanding what’s going on can help the process of recovery. If you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it might help to have a better idea of how your brain functions and how the various parts are supposed to work. This also can help you understand the treatments used to help “rewire” your brain, so it can work properly again.

PTSD is a mental health condition stemming from traumas—experienced during combat, disasters, or violence—that impact brain functioning. The alarm system in your brain, that normally helps ensure your survival, malfunctions; it becomes triggered too easily. In turn, parts of your brain responsible for thinking and memory stop functioning properly. When this happens, you have difficulty comparing what’s happening now with safe events from the past. Read more...

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