Filed under: Stress management
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.
Close relationships provide social support that can help relieve stress. One type we don’t know much about is “bromances”—close friendships between two men—but how these help or hurt stress levels isn’t clear.
It’s hard to do scientific research on this topic with humans because it would involve intentionally stressing people out to see how they respond. Who would volunteer for that?! So instead, scientists who study human social behavior use rats, which have social behavior very similar to that of humans. To learn more about the impact of bromances on stress, they observed male rat “friendships” under stressful situations. Here’s what they found.
Under mildly stressful situations, male rats became more social and cooperative with other male rats, compared to when they weren’t stressed. The rats’ oxytocin levels increased. They touched and snuggled other male rats more. Under severely stressful situations though, the male rats’ behavior changed. They were no longer cooperative and became withdrawn, isolated, and aggressive.
Of course, people aren’t rats, and one research study is never a good foundation for reliable conclusions, often raising more questions than it answers. However, it can give us “food for thought.” One idea from this study is that bromances seem beneficial, depending on stress level. Your friendships with other guys might help keep mild stress at bay. So spending time with your fellow men just might help you feel calmer.
Yet in severely stressful situations, bromances didn’t serve the same purpose. The rats became disconnected and hostile. Could the same be true for male humans? We can’t say for sure, but men exposed to severely stressful situations that result in PTSD sometimes have similar reactions.
Looking for ways to beef up your own stress-management skills? Check out HPRC’s Stress Management Strategies section. Concerned about your friend’s or spouse’s reaction to stress? Our Post-Deployment section has some resources to help.
The “relaxation response” is your body’s counterpart to the stress response you feel during critical situations. As the name suggests, the relaxation response has a calming effect on your mental and physical state, with benefits that include less anxiety, a more positive mood, a sense of calmness and well-being, and reduced heart rate, breathing and metabolic rates, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
Sound good? You can learn how to use your body’s relaxation response for health and well-being. Various mind-body techniques such as deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai-chi, and qigong all train you to turn this response on. Practicing these mind-body techniques has been found to help with anxiety and depression, as well as physical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and types of cancer that are exacerbated by stress.
To learn more about mind-body techniques, check out HPRC’s Mind-Body Skills section.
Stress isn’t an isolated event. It can infiltrate your life in many ways. A survey of more than 12,000 military personnel across the services revealed the impact of stress levels on Warfighter performance. Compared with those with low stress, Warfighters with high stress were much more likely to be late for work, leave work early, get hurt on the job, or miss work altogether because of illness or injury. These trends were especially strong among a smaller subset of personnel who had recently needed a mental health evaluation. Other research suggests that stress can combine with a person’s (often unknown) predispositions, sometimes triggering mental health issues.
Depending on the severity of mental health concerns, focus on performance can take a back seat. So stress, mental health, and performance often go hand in hand. Stress-management techniques and proactive approaches to mental health can help stressed Warfighters perform their best.
Think of stress as a balance scale. All the situations you find stressful are heaped up on one side. How you deal with them is on the other side. The trick is learning to balance the two sides (or even better, having your coping resources outweigh the causes of your stress).
Everyone feels overloaded at times, when stress seems too much to handle. This can be compounded with multiple family demands—from finances, children’s needs, managing work and family demands, and fostering your relationships. Here are two suggestions to help you find balance:
- Find out what practical needs are causing your stress and come up with possible ways to address them using HPRC's problem-solving tips. For example, you know that you need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but you and your partner seem to manage only five hours or so. So discuss possible solutions with your partner. For example, set a bedtime and stick to it no matter what chores aren’t done; put the kids to bed at an earlier time; create a wind-down routine 30 minutes before bedtime in order to get that eight hours—and stick to it! Then pick one of these possible solutions, try it out for a week, and then re-assess. If it doesn’t work, pick another; or if it does work, maybe tweak it a little to make it even better.
- Once you have plans to deal with the sources of your stress, then you can focus on managing your stressful feelings. There’s no need to continue feeling stressed out while you put your plan into action. Try some of the “behavioral strategies” in HPRC’s Managing Emotions that you can do anywhere with minimum fuss, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or other relaxation strategies. You can even teach them your children and do them together as a family. Learn how in “Calming & Grounding Activities” from the FOCUS Family Resiliency Training Manual, which describes several shared activities.
And check out HPRC’s Mind-Body Skills section for resources that are geared more for you as an individual.
Everyone has feelings—and by the time people become adults, most have a vocabulary for talking about them. Children, however, often don’t yet have this skill and are more likely to act out how they feel. A great way to strengthen your family is to help your child(ren) learn how to talk about feelings in an age-appropriate way. The Families Overcoming Under Stress (FOCUS) program for enhancing family resilience has created a “Feeling Thermometer” that you can use with your child so he or she can show you where his/her feelings fall. This is a great way to understand what your child is feeling and to start talking about emotions such as anger when a child gets too “hot,” so he or she can learn how to control such feelings and make that anger temperature go down.
For more ideas to strengthen your family, check out HPRC’s Family & Relationships domain.