Stress in Soldiers may be more than just holiday blues
December 13, 2012
By David Vergun
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WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 13, 2012) -- Everyone, including Soldiers and their families, experience stress once in a while. But too much could lead to a variety of problems including post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide.
First, stress is not necessarily a bad thing and can even be useful, especially for Soldiers on the battlefield.
Stress causes energy-pumping hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to be released into the bloodstream, preparing the body to act in times of danger, known as a "fight or flight" response, said Lisa Young, a health educator with the U.S. Army Public Health Command.
While this burst of energy can help Soldiers get through a battle or even overcome a difficult obstacle course during training, chronic stress is not a good thing.
"Too many people remain stuck in the fight or flight condition, and their stress response stays in high gear, which leads to chronic health problems," said Dr. Deborah Morrone of the Frederick, Md., Chiropractic Wellness Center. This month, she visited Soldiers and civilians at Fort Detrick, Md., to present a seminar on proper stress management techniques.
Chronic stress typically increases blood pressure, decreases digestion, and decreases the immune function for most people, she said. "It doubles the rate of heart and cardiovascular problems, substance abuse, and infectious diseases, and it may increase the average rate of some cancers by up to five times," she said, adding that stress is one of the leading contributors to preventable disease.
WAYS TO REDUCE STRESS
Army researchers are studying a variety of approaches that could help Soldiers and their families reduce stress. These include yoga and stress inoculation.
However, simple things that anyone can do like eating a proper diet and getting enough exercise can also reduce stress.
Morrone recommends a varied diet of whole, natural, unprocessed foods. "Chemical-laden processed 'food-like' substances only add to the strain on the body by creating inflammation," she said.
As a chiropractor, Morrone is a big advocate for posture and exercise.
"Physical activity works better than medication for depression," she said. "It increases endorphins, which are your body's natural painkillers, improves lung capacity and heart function, and improves digestion by helping with movement of the digestive tract.
"One of the biggest problems I see often in people dealing with stress is that they just don't breathe or move normally," she continued. "Their shoulders are hunched up tight and they forget they have to breathe! You can clearly see the tension in their body posture."
Young concurred that exercise and diet are good stress reduction techniques. She said at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise done regularly increase the level of endorphins in the body, those naturally occurring morphine-like substances that produce feelings of well-being.
She added some other stress-reducing activities including, participation in therapeutic massage, progressive muscle relaxation, listening to music, and relaxed breathing and mediation.
"Having a positive outlook on life and not taking things personally can reduce stress as well," she said. "Let go of the things that you cannot change."
One thing Young said people have a certain amount of control over is time management, an especially apt topic during the holiday season when people are in a rush to shop and spend and prepare for festivities.
"Set limits and put yourself in control of how you spend your time," she said. "Finding the balance among career obligations, family events, social activities and personal time is vital. Planning ahead helps avoid last-minute stressors."
ASSIST FELLOW SOLDIERS
Soldiers who are away from their loved ones this holiday season need to be especially alert to signs of stress so they can seek help or get others to seek help.
"Those especially vulnerable during the holidays are those who, amid the seasonal cheer feel lonely and isolated, in some cases because they're apart from their families, said Sondia Fontenot, Suicide Prevention Program manager with the U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud in South Korea.
"In addition, severe personal difficulties, such as marital problems, a pending divorce, a loved one gravely ill, can create added vulnerability," she said, leading to chronic stress and even suicide.
Problems on the job could be another major stressor.
"Not being able to communicate well with maybe their superiors on the job, that kind of things, personality conflicts, definitely work-related," she said. "If it's not the relationship back home, it's normally their job, what they're experiencing at work."
Warning signs that someone may be suicidal include instances where a person talks openly of suicide, gives away personal belongings, finalizes personal affairs, withdraws from friends and social activities, she added.
If a Soldier spots those signs, there are three actions that he or she can take to help avert suicide. The Army sums them up with the word "ACE," for Ask-Care-Escort.
- Ask: If you think a Soldier may be suicidal, ask, calmly but directly, whether he or she is thinking of suicide.
- Care: Listen carefully and give the Soldier a chance to talk about his or her problems.
- Escort: Don't leave the Soldier alone. Instead, take him or her to a health facility, a chaplain, or some other place where trained professionals can help.
"Sometimes, non-verbal behavior speaks a lot," Fontenot said. "Sometimes just a 'Good morning' or a 'Hello,' acknowledging the person, that their presence is there" can be helpful, she said. "You could even save a life that way."