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Depression in the Military – and Holiday Stress, Too

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Because of the very nature of a military job, service members and their families are prone to depression. Combat, separation from loved ones, a sense of rootlessness due to constant Permanent Changes of Station and even the everyday stress of operational tempo can permanently alter the chemistry in your brain, making you more susceptible to the condition. And the burdens bore by the families – similar in their own way, but unique in their difficulty, also make depression a commonplace villain for spouses and children.

If you’re a regular Military Family reader, you may have seen the excellent articles giving you the facts about depression – what it is and what it isn’t – along with Amy Miller’s excellent resource for detecting the signs of depression.

But did you know that the holiday season – the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – is especially hard on people who suffer from depression?  There are a lot of reasons for it: The stress of holiday shopping, financial woes (it’s hard enough to get groceries in every month, much less groceries and an XBOX 360 for Christmas morning,) longer nights and shorter days, cold weather, a diet filled with fatty and sugary foods and the resultant weight gain…the list goes on. This is to say nothing of the military men and women and their families who are separated by deployment and mobilization.

So it’s a double whammy: We’re more prone to depression, and depressed people have it especially bad during the holidays. What should be a bright, merry five weeks all too often is a gray, trying slog for military folks.

To let you in on a little secret, your faithful author has been battling depression for a long time. Like most depressed people, my dark times have come and gone in different chapters of my life, and the depression has manifested in different ways, too – anxiety, anger and more. I have seen countless doctors and therapists, and tried just about every medication under the sun. With time and treatment, I’ve come to a great place where I enjoy my life and can cope with my condition. I also picked up some tips and tricks to stave off Christmas blues.

  1. Don’t stop exercising. When the weather gets bad and half the folks in your office are out on leave or special liberty, PT (physical training) is one of the first things to fall to the wayside. Don’t let it happen. You don’t have to run or kill the pull-up bars when it’s snowing outside, but grabbing a good book or playing a game on your phone while you bust out 45 minutes on the elliptical at the base gym is the number one treatment for holiday blues. “Gabe, Gabe,” you’re saying. “Who has time to workout during the holidays?” You. You have time. Do it at lunch, do it before work, ask the Gunny or the Major or whoever if you can come in a half-hour late to make sure you get some PT time in. Research has shown that maintaining an exercise regimen can be as effective as antidepressants for fighting depression. It’s too important not to PT, and it’ll help keep away the cookies-and-fudge-and-eggnog flab that tends to come with wintertime, too.
  2. Know your triggers. As WebMD put it, know “the ghosts of Christmas past.” If you’ve struggled with holiday depression for a long time, you know what will put you in a funk. For a lot of people, it’s consuming too much alcohol. For others, it’s going to party after party with a bunch of strangers, but not getting enough time with your family. Closely related to number 2 is…
  3. Start new traditions. For a lot of people, the holidays are associated with memories of family and traditions that brought them a lot of joy. We grow up, our lives fly by us, and the people that were once close to us pass on; such is life, and those of us who have lost brothers or sisters in arms are especially intimate with this. If your old traditions are fundamentally bound up with sad memories, it’s time to start new traditions. If you and Mom used to watch Christmas in Connecticut every year and she’s gone on to a better place, stop watching Christmas in Connecticut. Seriously. You’re not betraying Mom’s memory. In fact, she’s mad at you for making yourself sad (and giving you that look right now. You know, that look.) Grab a friend and get a new movie, or go caroling, or volunteer at a homeless shelter. Be creative. Find novel ways to get into the holiday spirit in positive ways with people that make you happy.
  4. Be grateful for what you have. More than anything else, I hear people saying that they just don’t get into the holiday spirit anymore. They’re always thinking about this or that party, or this or that last-minute bit of shopping, or any of the other hundreds of stresses that plague merrymakers in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Don’t spend the entire holidays thinking about all of the other things you should really be doing. Take a deep breath wherever you are, feel the earth beneath your feet and be absolutely present in the moment. Take stock of your blessings. You live in the greatest country on earth, you’re fabulously wealthy compared to most folks on the planet, you have a family (presumably, if you’re reading this site) and a steady job and you’re doing the noble, sacred work of defending your fellow Americans from harm, or supporting someone who does. You have a lot to be grateful for. When you feel your mind spiraling down somewhere you don’t want it to go, you have to stop it before it gets locked in the “woe-is-me” cycle. Focus on happy things. It might seem impossible, but it actually doesn’t take more than about ten or fifteen minutes of trying as hard as you can to think positive. Keep thinking positive, even if you don’t believe yourself. You will turn yourself around.
  5. Don’t be in denial about depression, anxiety and stress. I had a great leader who used to say, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” You’re not weak if you’re feeling depressed. You’re not losing your cool if you’re stressed out. There’s nothing less about you if you are anxious about the holidays. You are you. Acknowledging your feelings, even saying them out loud or writing them down, and sharing with your family members can be extraordinarily helpful. There’s no need to be the strong, silent type and suffer your burdens privately – that’s a fallacy, anyway, because if you are hurting inside, your spouse knows it, your kids know it, your whole family and all of your friends know it, and denying it just makes them feel shut out. No man is an island, and neither is any woman. The difference between people who handle the negativity of depression and other ailments like it with grace and eventual success, and those who suffer greatly because of it, is the way in which they approach their problems. Talk to your friends and family. Let them know when you’re down. Take them into your confidence. They’ll think more of you, not less. And you’ll feel better, and be able to be a better friend, spouse or parent to them.

These are just a few to get you started, and there are many wonderful resources on the Web for folks who are having holiday blues. As always, if your depression takes a scary turn, or you start thinking harmful thoughts, it’s important to talk to someone right away. A doctor can prescribe you medication if you need it, and a therapist can help you reach deep down inside yourself where the thick, ooey-gooey dark stuff in your subconscious is making trouble for you. If you think seeing a professional is a good idea, don’t hesitate. It won’t affect your career, and it’ll help you find your bootstraps so you can pull yourself up and out of the funk.

You can beat holiday stress and holiday depression – through treatment, self-help or sometimes a combination of the two. And you can feel proud of yourself that you didn’t let your condition get in the way of letting you be the best spouse, parent or child that you can be.

Has anyone else struggled with depression? What are your tips for fighting the holiday blues? I’d be interested in hearing from you in the comments. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone!


(image credit:  clearviewtreatment.com)