February is American Heart Month, an observance sponsored by the American Heart Association which brings awareness to the facts, statistics, and prevention of heart disease. Many people already know that eating a healthy diet and getting enough physical activity are two key components of a healthy heart. But there’s one factor that is often overlooked as a contributor to heart disease, yet it can do just as much damage to the heart as poor eating or physical inactivity. For those of us living the military lifestyle, this factor is nearly unavoidable and, in some cases, becomes a constant element in our daily lives. What is this culprit? Stress.
All military families have their fair share of difficulties and frustrations. They experience long tiring deployments, demanding and irregular schedules, multiple moves and figuring out where to live from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. They experience separation during holidays, birthdays, special kids’ events, and even the births of their children. All of this heartache brings a great deal of stress to everyone in the family.
I’ve realized over the years that it is much better to try to keep a positive perspective and not let the hardships bring me down. I frequently read quotes and verses to remind me that I can do this, we as a family can do this, and that in the grand scheme of things we are truly blessed with everything we have. I have even tried to convince myself that I am perfectly content in this lifestyle. But no matter how much I convince my mind to remain positive and accept this lifestyle, I still feel the pressure weighing down on me and the family.
According to the American Heart Association, chronic stress can affect factors that lead to heart disease risk, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity, overeating, and overuse of alcohol. Additionally, when under stress breathing and heart rate increase and blood pressure rises. During long-term stress, as often experienced in the military lifestyle, the body remains in high gear for days or weeks at a time potentially damaging blood vessels and artery walls.
Fortunately, taking steps to manage stress can help prevent the negative effects of stress on the body. Here are a few ways to find relaxation in the presence of stress:
- Talk to family and friends. This can especially helpful for military spouses at home who tend to withdraw during deployments. Talking to friends, especially those who understand what you’re going through can help drastically reduce stress levels.
- Be active every day. Sometimes a long workout isn’t feasible, but even a quick walk, housecleaning, or dancing around with the kids can help lower feelings of stress.
- Learn something new. You may not be able to change the fact that your family is separated, but you can use the time to take up a new hobby or learn something new to help pass the time and gain feelings of accomplishment.
- Seek out comedy. Laughing is a great stress reliever! Spending time with a funny friend or watching a sit-com that makes you laugh can be therapeutic.
- Slow down. Give yourself time to complete the most important tasks and appreciate the most important people. Military life creates lots of distractions, but take time to slow down long enough to enjoy your kids and each other.
- Get enough sleep. Everything seems more difficult when you’re overtired. Adequate sleep helps reduce stress, which can help you better tackle challenging times.
- Plan some fun. Help a deployment go by faster by planning a vacation right in the middle of it. Take the kids to the grandparents’ house or on a trip to see something new. If you don’t have kids, plan a week at the beach with other spouses. And when your service member is home, make sure to use up all that leave and go on vacations together.
- Try not to worry. It’s easier said than done, but do what you can to keep worry at bay. Pray, meditate, and/or find one person to confide in for your biggest fears. Once in a while, put away your to-do list until tomorrow and make some “me” time.
There’s no getting around the stresses of military life, but making time to practice some of these techniques can help reduce the amount of stress on your heart and help you better manage the challenging times. The better you are at handling stress, the more you will be able to view military life in a positive way. That is something the heart will be happy about!