Tag Archives: stress

Stress Reduction Techniques for High-Stress Operations

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Editor’s Note: The following is a guest blog provided courtesy of the Real Warriors Campaign. Navy Suicide Prevention Branch is a proud partner of the Real Warriors Campaign. To learn more, visit www.realwarriors.net.

Any role in the military can be stressful. However, for those like special operators, explosive ordinance technicians, submariners, aviators and others, stress is a significant part of the job. The extreme stress faced by these warriors, and others, can lead to psychological health concerns.

Recent research focusing on special operations forces (SOF) highlights the risks faced by service members working in any high-stress role. Heavy physical, mental and emotional strain can lead to psychological health concerns. These can include depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder.

It is important for all warriors to learn stress-management techniques. Stress can cause anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, irritability, heavy drinking or other concerns. If you experience any of these symptoms, or have other concerns, talk to a health care provider now. Your provider can address your concerns and help you develop a stress-management plan. Getting care early helps you stay mission ready. It also avoids new or worsening symptoms.

The Effects of Stress on SOF

SOF personnel are an example of service members supporting high-stress operations. The nature of their work is sensitive, and they make frequent deployments, often on short notice. They have strong resilience skills because of SOF selection screenings and their follow-on training. However, they aren’t immune to the effects of high-stress operations. In one survey about twice as many members of SOF units reported symptoms associated with PTSD when compared to members of conventional units.

Others, like drone pilots, face similar stressors. Executing critical missions, dealing with life-and-death decisions and safeguarding classified information all adds up. That makes robust skills for managing stress crucial if you’re in these types of roles.

Skills That Aid Job Performance Under High Stress

The ability to perform under high stress is critical to mission readiness. Service members, like special operators, use stress inoculation training to stay focused and effective when the going gets tough. This type of training teaches you skills to manage stress responses at critical times by:

  • Controlling emotions. Reduce negative thinking and fear. This avoids distracting thoughts during a critical mission.
  • Calming physical reactions to stress. Use regular, slow breathing from your diaphragm and progressive muscle relaxation. This reduces your heart rate and anxiety.
  • Training with repetition. Repeat tasks that require a consistent response until you can do them on autopilot.
  • Visualizing tasks. Envision successfully using your skills in action right before you need them.
  • Learning prioritization. Order tasks to deal with information overload and manage multiple high-priority assignments at the same time.
  • Building team skills. Communicate, give constructive feedback, coordinate group efforts and ask for help when needed.

Additional skills woven into service-specific trainings for high-stress operations include:

  • Goal-setting
  • Persistence
  • Situational awareness
  • Attentional conditioning
  • Muscle control

Stress Reduction Techniques

All warriors with high-stress jobs can benefit from basic stress-reduction techniques. To reduce stress:

  • Exercise regularly. Cardio and strength training reduce stress levels and keep you mission ready.
  • Get good sleep. Poor sleep or not enough sleep has a significant negative impact on wellbeing.
  • Eat healthy. A good diet helps keep your body and mind in shape.
  • Participate in relaxing activities. Breathing-based meditation and yoga, for example, can improve symptoms and reduce anxiety.
  • Stay connected. The support of friends and family improves psychological health when facing stress.

Remember, reaching out is a sign of strength. If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants, call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also visit our “Seek Help, Find Care” page to see a list of key psychological health resources.

Additional Resources:

Fall into Healthy Stress Navigation with “Sailors on the Street”

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Self-care isn’t just important, it’s essential. Picture this:

You’re feeling overwhelmed at work. You have overdue projects piling up, both at work and at home. Perhaps you are deployed or deploying soon and your “to do” list feels endless.  It seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day, so you skip lunch one day. Then maybe you skip the gym the next, and then by Friday you have cut the number of hours you’re sleeping to four hours per night.

Any of this sound familiar?

When we’re stressed, self-care is typically the first thing to go, and that only makes matters worse. Good self-care can be a challenge for many and is unique for everyone, but overall includes basic activities that promote physical and emotional well-being.

Autumn is a great time to “fall” in love with taking care of your mind, body and spirit by taking the time to re-evaluate, adjust and establish a cohesive self-care strategy and routine. And this fall, you can gain some inspiration and motivation from your shipmates.

This October, the Every Sailor, Every Day campaign is launching a series of “Sailor on the Street” videos, with Sailors from around the fleet sharing some of their personal tips, hacks, opinions and personal experiences with stress, stress navigation and self-care. Real Sailors, giving their real take. All videos are also accompanied by Small ACTs and actionable steps that you can take to help navigate stress, such as reaching out to the DoD BeThere Peer Support Call and Outreach Center or doing a quick breathing exercise.

You can check out some of the things your shipmates are doing to get a handle on their stress here:

Like all Every Sailor, Every Day products, these videos are not a one-off, standalone effort to educate Sailors about stress navigation, but rather a sustainable and flexible way to start conversations about stress navigation and self-care strategies. These videos can be used as ice breakers for Operational Stress Control and/or life-skills trainings as well as for small group discussions. They can be shared on social media to help generate conversations and awareness about the importance of self-care strategies.

Don’t let self-care “fall” by the wayside this autumn. Even when it seems like every moment should be dedicated to work and personal life responsibilities, take some time to incorporate the things that help you feel a little less stressed into your life. And encourage your friends, family, and shipmates to do the same. Get out and do something for yourself with the people in your life you care about. Take a walk with a friend. Cook one of your favorite meals with a relative. Work out with a shipmate who may be feeling like their plate is full. Or just be there to listen to someone who needs to talk. Those Small ACTs can be a great way to reset and relieve stress.

Recognizing Risk and Reaching out to a Friend on Social Media

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Recognizing risk is an essential component of suicide prevention. Human communication has changed over time and social media is now one of the most common means of interacting with friends, family and people with similar interests. Aside from enabling people to stay connected during deployments or after long distance moves, social media platforms have become channels for expressing thoughts, opinions and emotions. Sometimes, signs of suicide risk are displayed, but people may not know how to recognize them. Understanding how to spot content that may indicate risk is an important first step that can enable early intervention. Here are a few ways to identify signs that your friend is in distress on social media:

  • Joking about dying or feeling no reason to live. Naturally, any posts directly indicating a desire to die or otherwise cause self-harm are warning signs of immediate danger. But sometimes these posts may be masked by sarcasm, a casual tone or even disguised as jokes. Just because there’s an “LOL” or emoji in the post, doesn’t mean that the person is playing around. Often these statements are subtle ways of asking for help and are opportunities for others to reach out, show concern and get help.
  • Expressing hopelessness, feeling trapped or other intense emotions. Posts that discuss feeling stuck in a situation that won’t get better, or experiencing unbearable pain, guilt, shame or intense rage can be signs that someone needs help. IS PATH WARM is an acronym developed by the American Association for Suicidology for recognizing suicide warning signs. By familiarizing yourself with these signs, it may be easier to detect them in social media content.
  • Patterns or changes in the type of content posted. Posts describing destructive behaviors such as abusing substances or alcohol, driving recklessly, buying weapons, or engaging in unsafe sexual behaviors can also be signs that someone is at risk. Each year, Navy Suicide Prevention Branch conducts cross disciplinary case reviews and examines the publicly available social media posts of all Sailors who died by suicide. Many of those posts included more frequent images or discussion of excessive alcohol use in social settings and/or alone, communicating about a bad break-up, a career setback, or a strained relationship with a shipmate or supervisor leading up to the Sailor’s death. Posts about personal stressors such as social isolation, significant health issues, loss of a job or home, or deaths of loved ones were also common.

When you notice something that exhibits suicide risk in a friend or family member’s social media postings, ACT:

  • Reach out and ask direct questions, such as “are you thinking about killing yourself?”
  • Show that you care by listening without judgment and offering hope. Be there.
  • Help your friend connect with a support system immediately. Notify the social media platform’s safety team (see below). Encourage your friend to contact the Military Crisis Line (call 800-273-TALK and Press 1 or text 838255), reach out to a chaplain or call 911 if you know the person’s location. Stay in contact with your friend throughout their treatment to promote a healthy recovery.

The top social media platforms have safety teams that enable concerned users to report content that indicates potential risk of suicide or self-harm, and may even provide the concerned user with additional tools to communicate with the person. Each platform has different response times and resources. To learn more about social media safety teams, visit the following pages:

Many people do not know how to approach discussions about suicide or they feel that it can be too sad of an issue to talk about. In reality, constructive conversations about suicide prevention as well as general psychological health and wellness are among the most helpful ways to break down barriers. When having conversations about suicide prevention, always:

  • Convey a positive and hopeful narrative;
  • Emphasize the importance of seeking help from qualified counselors or mental health professionals; and
  • Avoid using terms like “commit suicide” that can be perceived as judgmental by those who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or have lost others to suicide.

If you are not sure how to talk about suicide or what words to use, the Every Sailor, Every Day campaign’s new 1 Small ACT Toolkit provides helpful tips. Additionally, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Framework for Successful Messaging and Blogging On Suicide provide additional tips on how to talk about suicide safely. This year, the Every Sailor, Every Day campaign has partnered with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s #BeThe1To campaign to promote five action steps for talking to someone who may be suicidal. Learn more about how these evidence-based five steps can help by visiting http://www.bethe1to.com/bethe1to-steps-evidence/. You can also promote the five steps using Every Sailor, Every Day’s customized graphics, available here: http://www.bethe1to.com/join/.

Veteran Helps Advance Conversation on Lethal Means Safety

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As veteran Jay Zimmerman notes, a service member’s firearm is “almost like another appendage.” Zimmerman understands military culture and has a love for firearms, stemming from frequent hunting trips with his grandfather while growing up in the Appalachian region. Today he’s advocating for service members and veterans to practice lethal means safety when it comes to firearms and dealing with prolonged stress or psychological health concerns. Lethal means safety–keeping highly-lethal methods of suicide out of reach or less accessible during times of particularly high stress–is an important part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent suicide.

Zimmerman served in multiple combat zones as a former Army medic and his service weapon was essential to his and his comrades’ safety. But after navigating psychological health challenges and losing a good friend and fellow soldier to suicide, he reached a crisis point. His relationship with his wife, with whom he reconnected during the heat of his crisis, drove him toward the decision to seek help. He now champions the impact that taking simple precautions has had on his life, like storing his guns safely so that he can’t make any “rash decisions” when he hits a rough patch. In a recent National Public Radio story, Zimmerman explains that he stores his guns disassembled and separately from ammunition. He’s also made a special arrangement with friends “if things get really bad” so that they can hold onto his weapons until he feels like it’s safe to reclaim them.

For service members, transitions, relationship issues and career or personal setbacks can lead to increased stress and increased suicide risk. In addition to taking the precautions Jay Zimmerman champions, both active and reserve Sailors can work with their commanding officers and health professionals to arrange safe storage of their personal firearms during high-risk periods, per NAVADMIN 263/14.

Zimmerman is now a peer counselor at a local VA medical center and has connected with a meaningful purpose. He travels to speaking engagements and conferences across the country sharing his personal story and encouraging service members and vets to practice lethal means safety when they’re not feeling like themselves. He also coaches therapists and clinical providers on how to productively discuss these precautions with patients.

Zimmerman recognizes the perceptions that may influence a service member’s decision to voluntarily store their personal firearms or practice safety at home (such as using a gun lock). He notes that many are worried that they’ll “lose the gun that [they] carry pretty much all the time” if they opt for voluntary storage. But he emphasizes that this isn’t the case and illustrates how this personal decision can be both empowering and life-saving. His decisions to seek help and protect himself have led to him living a fulfilling life supporting other veterans.

Firearms are the most commonly used means of suicide across military and civilian populations, due in large part to easy access and high-lethality. 1 Small ACT, such as securing your firearm with a gun lock or arranging for temporary safe storage, can save a life. Check out the Every Sailor, Every Day campaign’s new lethal means safety graphics and posters here. Stay tuned for additional products addressing other ways to practice lethal means safety, such as proper disposal of unused medications.

Fueling Your Body and Mind with Food

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The relationship between food and health is complex. The foods we eat have a chemical effect on the brain and impact how we feel. Eating processed foods—from nutritional supplements like protein powders to combo meals from your favorite drive-thru—can keep your body from accessing the beneficial nutrients it needs to help you feel and perform your best. Why is this? Many of the essential and naturally occurring nutrients are stripped, altered or replaced during processing. This includes fiber, phytonutrients and other healthy compounds.

Current studies show that a balanced diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein promotes optimal health and better mood. These whole foods are made of vitamins and minerals that are broken down during digestion, making them available for the body to use as energy and for essential processes like cellular repair. When essential components are missing, we experience a decline in energy, alertness and mood.

Supplement vs. Whole Food

Supplements typically use artificial or synthetic vitamins and minerals, which may not offer the same benefits as whole foods. The human body is designed to recognize natural and whole ingredients, so it isn’t able to utilize the man-made vitamins and minerals as effectively.

Many supplements isolate particular nutrients and leave out essentials that the body would otherwise use if the food was consumed in its natural form. Take whey protein powder supplements for example. While this milk-based protein produces a rapid increase in amino acids needed for muscle growth and repair, casein protein can also help prevent muscle breakdown (which in turn, supports growth). Where do both whey and casein naturally occur? In milk! In general, service members consume enough protein through their food and don’t actually need to supplement their protein intake.

Comfort Food vs. Whole Food

Our mood often influences what we eat, but what we eat can also influence our mood. Consider these scenarios:

  • Two Sailors are experiencing similar stressors. They’re in the midst of preparing for permanent change of station (PCS) moves that are causing a lot of strain in their households and on their wallets. At work, they’re both hit with short-fused tasks that their current supervisors are keeping close watch on, in addition to the other things they have to get done.
  • When Sailor A gets home, tired and frustrated, he reaches for cookies, potato chips and a soda and heads to the couch. He starts to get his mind off of everything, but about 20 minutes later he’s back to feeling drained and irritated.
  • When Sailor B gets home, tired and frustrated, he goes for some leftover grilled chicken and vegetables in the refrigerator and a glass of water. His problems don’t go away after he eats, but he’s able to regroup and shift focus to the things he can get done at home to support the move without feeling angry or annoyed.

Why the different outcomes? The comfort foods Sailor A went for are highly processed, high in added sugar and fat, and low in nutrients. While they may have an emotional appeal (especially if they were his go-to comforts as children) those effects wore off quickly. The vitamins and nutrients he needed to rebalance his mood, such as serotonin, were missing or less effective because they were in a man-made form that wasn’t as accessible to his body. This emotional rollercoaster can increase feelings of anxiety, depression and fatigue, causing the craving cycle to begin again. Sailor B got the benefits of serotonin, boosting his mood and giving him the energy to do something productive. Not only did he get his mind off of his day, but he’ll sleep better and be more focused and alert.

How to make changes

Eating healthy or healthier doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Here are a few ways to make the switch to whole or less processed foods:

  • Re-think fast food. For a quick and healthy meal, opt for a rotisserie chicken at your local grocery store, a salad and fresh fruit.
  • Shop the perimeter of your grocery store for fresh meats and produce. Most frozen food is good too; just skip items with gravies and sauces. Living in the barracks? Check out these tips to eat healthy while saving time, space and money.
  • Swap out your sugary snack stash for your favorite fresh fruits and vegetables; the original comfort foods. Pair them with 10-15 nuts or a tablespoon peanut butter or other healthy spread.
  • If going for a processed food (something that comes in a bag, box, container or package), aim for five ingredients or less. Watch out for high-fructose corn syrup and other hidden sugars.

Talk to your Health Promotions Office or Registered Dietitians (RD/N) office for more information and resources.

LT Pamela Gregory, OPNAV N17 Nutrition Program Manager, is a Registered Dietitian with nine years’ experience in counseling a wide variety of clientele on nutrition and health-related diseases/ topics. LT Gregory uses a functional nutrition approach to assist clients in their treatment phase.

References:

  1. (2015, Aug. 31). Is Whey Protein the way to go? Retrieved Jun. 21, 2017, from http://hprc-online.org/dietary-supplements/hprc-articles/is-whey-protein-helpful-to-optimize-performance.
  2. (2014, Jan. 2 ). Can Food Affect Your Mood. Retrieved Jun. 21, 2017, from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/01/02/food-affects-mood.aspx
  3. (2012, Jan. 1) Journal of Food Science, 77 PP R11-R24.
  4. (1999). Impact of Processing on Food Safety. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 459 PP 99-106.