Filed under: Stress
Different people react differently to stress, especially when it comes to food, and depending on the cause, intensity, and duration of stress. Whereas some people lose their appetite and skip meals in response to stress, others either overeat or eat unhealthy foods. Under stress, people tend to choose snack-type foods that are high in fat and sugar instead of meal-type foods such as meats, fruits, and vegetables.
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s essential to survival and part of being a Warfighter. The key is learning how to manage your stress. December is the Military Health System’s Stress Management Month, which is especially appropriate for most of us during the holiday season. Here are some tips to help you reduce your stress and the likelihood of overeating:
- Engage in physical activity most days of the week, and try stress-relieving exercises such as yoga and meditation. Or find other hobbies that you enjoy and that help you feel relaxed.
- If you’re finding it difficult to stop reaching for the kitchen cupboard or refrigerator, make sure you stock your shelves with healthy snacks such as fresh fruit, cut-up veggie sticks, and air-popped popcorn (without the butter).
- Try to keep a food diary to understand the connection between your mood and your food. Keep track of what you eat, when you eat, and your emotions at the times you want to eat.
Learning how to manage your stress can be beneficial in more ways than one. For more information on stress and your health, read the National Institute of Mental Health’s factsheet on adult stress and HPRC’s resources for stress management.
If you’ve ever gotten up to speak in front of a crowd or waited to take a test, you’re already aware of how your thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions can overcome you if you’re not aware of them or if you try to erase them. These are obvious examples, but this “mind-body interaction” is at work all the time, often in subtle ways. Thoughts can impact your emotions, how you feel physically, and even how you behave.
Here’s an example: You test for the APRT on a day when you’re sick and score worse than your previous time. You could possibly think, “I stink,” and feel defeated and worse than you did before the test, subsequently putting less effort into the next one. Or you could think, “Not bad for being sick; let’s see what I’m made of next time!” and likely feel excited and more energized to put in necessary training. The list of possible thoughts in response to this event is endless, and each thought has a different emotion, body feeling, and behavior attached to it.
When you’re not aware of what your internal experiences are to begin with, thoughts, moods, signals from your body, and your behavior can come together to form the “perfect storm” of stress, which can impact immediate and future performances. By being aware of each thought, mood, sensation, and behavior, you can slow the storm down and have more influence over what you do and how you perform. Avoid running on autopilot.
The “Mind-Body ABCs” is a technique that can help. Pay attention to some situations where performance matters, and log the following:
“A” stands for Activating Event—the event or situation you’re currently in (or looking at afterwards) that triggers subtle responses from your mind and body.
“B” represents Belief—your thoughts about that situation. Imagine yourself as a cartoon in the Sunday comics with a thought bubble over your head. Your “belief” about the situation you’re in is represented by what’s written or drawn in the bubble.
“C” is for Consequences—how your thoughts affect your mood, body sensations, and behaviors. Notice the specific emotion you’re feeling (such as fear, anger, or even happiness), what’s happening in your body (such as butterflies, tensing up, or letting go), and what you feel pulled to do (such as hiding from the situation, arguing, or giving your best effort).
For each ABC, try to tune into one Activating event, one Belief, and a short list of Consequences (emotions, body feelings, and behaviors). Rather than trying to log all this in your head, use HPRC’s new Mind-Body ABCs Worksheet or make a similar chart in a journal and practice tracking your own ABCs (and alternative responses to the same A) every day.
When performance matters, it’s common to feel amped up—your heart beats faster, for example. How you interpret these physical sensations can change how you feel emotionally, including your overall mindset, and ultimately make a difference in how you perform. Recent research into performance anxiety over tasks such as singing, public speaking, and math gives us some insights about performance anxiety in general.
It’s normal to interpret some physical signs as performance anxiety. When you feel amped up, it may be difficult—or even impossible—to simply “decide” to feel calmer, because it isn’t consistent with what is happening in your body. And trying to pretend you’re calm can actually make you feel more anxious. But because your body has some of the same reactions—increased heart rate, “butterflies,” etc.—when you’re excited, you can actually feel excitement and anxiety at the same time by simply saying “I’m excited!” or deciding to feel excited. This doesn’t make the anxiety go away, but adding a layer of excitement over it can be valuable to how you think and ultimately perform..
Excitement feels good and puts your mind on a different track. When you’re excited, it’s easier to become aware of opportunities instead of potential threats. And this “opportunity mindset” leads to better performance.
So when you feel anxious about performing on the PRT, with marksmanship, or for any other task, remember that it’s normal. Convince yourself to feel excited. Allow yourself to see the opportunities. And in turn, enjoy better performance.
Money issues tend to be a major source of stress for Americans, and military families are no exception. Financial stress can increase your risk for poor health and have a negative impact on productivity and mood. Stress over money can reverberate through your relationships too. For example, couples who are under financial stress are more likely to be hostile and aggressive with each other and less secure and happy in their relationships. So what can you do to reduce your stress over money?
Here are some tips from Building Resilience in the Military Family:
- Have each family member discuss his/her financial dreams, how to make money decisions, and who will manage the money. (If there are differences, try the tips on HPRC’s “Making Decisions” card)
- Save at least $1,000 for unexpected expenses and, ideally, six months of your total monthly expenses.
- Work on paying off debt. Figure out a plan to pay off your debts, no matter how long it will take to get rid of them.
- Create and use a budget. This planning tool from Military OneSource can help you make a financial management plan.
- Save for retirement. A good rule is to save 10–15% of your gross income in retirement accounts annually.
- Check your credit. Knowing your credit history and credit number can help you spot identity theft and/or motivate you to stay (or become) responsible.
- Create a will. Setting up a will is important no matter your age.
Think about whether you have the insurance your family needs. Do you have health insurance, auto insurance, home/renters insurance, and life insurance?
The term “mental toughness” is often tossed about, but what is it really? And do you have it? Mental toughness is important to the success of Warfighters, athletes, business people, and others who have to overcome adversity to be successful.
Sport psychologists and others interested in optimal performance talk a lot about mental toughness, but it’s a bit complex, so it’s often misunderstood. Mental toughness is not just one trait; it’s a mixture of them.
Boiling it down, mental toughness is a strong belief in yourself and an unshakable faith that you control your own destiny. If you’re mentally tough, you can remain undaunted by adversity.
If you have these 4 Cs, you’re mentally tough:
1) Control: You feel in control of your emotions and influential with the people in your life.
2) Commitment: You embrace difficulty rather than running from it.
3) Challenge: You believe that life is full of opportunities, not threats.
4) Confidence: You know you have what it takes to be successful.
Mental toughness is a psychological edge that some are born with and others develop. It allows you to consistently cope with training and lifestyle demands better than those who don’t have it.
You can develop mental toughness through a long-term process of developing mental skills. Leaders can promote mental toughness by creating a learning environment centered on the mastery of those skills (listed above) and by being generally supportive, encouraging Warfighters to maintain positive relationships. Over the long haul, to maintain your mental toughness, you need to continue honing mental skills, and you need a self-driven, insatiable desire to succeed.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can tear apart your sense of what is safe and of what is good.
Part of the diagnosis of PTSD is exposure to a traumatic event: death, serious injury, sexual violence, or the threat of any of these. PTSD symptoms such as intrusive memories, avoidance of situations or feelings, problems in thinking or mood, and feeling overly amped up are common reactions to abnormal circumstances. Think of PTSD symptoms as self-preservation instincts gone haywire. One theory holds that, because you nearly died or experienced something awful or could picture it because it happened to someone close to you, your mind/body tries to sound the alarm bells to keep you safe. But the alarm bells sound at the wrong times and in the wrong ways.
However, PTSD symptoms can come from sources other than fear of bodily harm. They also can arise from inner conflict, when emotions trigger feelings such shame and guilt or when you question fundamental beliefs (such as “the world is basically good”). Witnessing or experiencing betrayal (especially by a leader in a high-stakes situation), within-ranks violence, extreme violence, and incidents involving civilians are some of what can disrupt your world view. It isn’t just an event but the interpretation of an event that causes Warfighters to experience “moral injury.”
If you suffer moral injury as part of PTSD, you start believing you live in an immoral world, or you view yourself as immoral, irredeemable, and defective. If you’re a Warfighter experiencing these feelings, you not only feel lousy, but you are more likely to isolate yourself just when you need others more than ever. Isolation can lead to self-handicapping or self-destructive behaviors.
So how do you save yourself from experiencing moral injury as a part of PTSD? Having a healthy sense of self-esteem can be one of your best protectors. There are no quick fixes. But forgiveness—of others and of yourself—can help you to let go of moral injury. With the help of a psychotherapist, you can begin to wrap your heart and mind around what happened. And pursuing positive interactions, such as getting involved with charitable groups, can give you opportunities to relearn that you are good and the other people in the world are generally good too. Last but not least, connecting with your spirituality—in whatever way is comfortable to you—can help you navigate this difficult journey.
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.
Everyone experiences stress, but how you interpret stress determines how stressed you feel. This process is often referred to as the “ABCs of stress”:
Activating event + Beliefs = Consequences
When you experience an event, you interpret that “Activating event” according to your “Beliefs”—the lens through which you view the world. Generally, your interpretation is what causes your feelings of stress—that is, the “Consequences.” This is why two people can go through the same event and be affected in very different ways. If your interpretation of events leads to high levels of stress, you can manage your stress by finding ways to reframe your interpretation.
Afterdeployment.org suggests making a “Stress Toolkit” in which you identify helpful coping strategies. These could be strategies that ignite your relaxation response or reframe your thinking (see above) and/or behavioral methods such as deep breathing.
Another way to help you manage stress is to think through future stressful situations to be better prepared. Afterdeployment.org suggests: 1. Visualize potential stressful situations. 2. Determine how much of the situation you can control. 3. Problem-solve what you can control (using coping methods that work for you), and 4. Remember to lean on your friends and family for support.
For more information and ideas, visit HPRC’s Stress Management section.
The American Psychological Association just released an article suggesting that trial judges make better decisions when they do “STOP” meditations:
- Stop what you are doing
- Take a few deep breaths and focus on the experience of breathing
- Observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions
- Proceed with new awareness
Like Warfighters, judges make very important decisions that affect peoples’ lives, but judges also are not immune to impacts of stress. Like everyone else under stress, they can thoughtlessly make quick decisions based on “rules of thumb,” but because we are human biases creep in, sometimes leading to bad decisions.
So, the STOP technique can be important too for Warfighters, spouses, parents, or anyone else looking to make good decisions when it matters. STOP-ping allows you to monitor and adjust your current stress in order to make good decisions.
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.