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Stress relief is an important element to mental health

Military personnel playing with a therapy dog New York Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Richard Masci, assigned to the 369th Sustainment Brigade, is greeted by a therapy dog at his lodging site in New York, April 17, 2020. The dogs are part of a program to bolster soldier and health care worker resiliency during COVID-19 operations at the Javits New York Medical Station in Manhattan (Photo by: Courtesy photo from Gloria Gilbert Stoga, New York Army National Guard).

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Stress has become a common part of people's lives, especially in our fast-paced world where people try to balance work, family, and life to succeed in meeting goals and obligations.

And although short bursts of stress can be positive drivers to keep you safe in moments of danger or push you to meet a deadline, excessive, continuous stress limits our ability to function properly over the long term and can have detrimental effects in our overall health, according to the National Institutes of Health.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, the Military Health System focuses on healthy ways to relieve stress.

Two service members shared their perspectives about how they relieve stress – whether by seeking professional help and support when needed or by engaging in stress-relieving activities – to remain resilient and healthy.

Air Force 1st Lt. Thi Lua is a mental health nurse at Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. As a mom, service member, and mental health provider, she understands the value of mental health firsthand.

"It is imperative that anyone, which is everyone, with stress or multiple stressors to recognize it and find coping skills to help alleviate each trigger one at a time," she said. "Stress is the No. 1 culprit in exacerbating dormant illnesses and causes new acute illness to develop."

For Lua, finding ways to relieve stress is important in preventing it from affecting a person's job and mission, as well as the huge impact stress could have on their personal life.

"To help me cope with everyday stressors, I like to go on hikes with my family at least twice a month and enjoy weekly visits to the park with my kids," she said. "I also enjoy playing chess with my son and Sudoku any time I have 15 minutes to spare."

And on the occasion that none of those activities helps relieve her feelings of stress, "just sitting alone in a quiet or peaceful place most times help decrease my anxiety," she said.

She is aware that showing her kids how to deal with stressors in a positive way sets a good example.

"It's very important to show them healthy ways of dealing with stress or anything that they are bothered with, as they see and do what I do," she said.

For Army 1st Lt. Nicole Barth, a clinical nurse at Fort Carson's Evans Community Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado, her faith is an important element to keeping her grounded.

"It helps me to be realistic with how big my problems are compared to others' problems in the world," she said. "And it also helps me maintain a strong appreciation for a work-life balance."

Military health personnel hiking
Physical activities are good stress relievers. They may help increase endorphins, the body’s feel-good neurotransmitters, to counter the effects of stress and improve your mood (Photo by: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Quinn Hurt).

In addition, Barth also engages in physical activities and surrounds herself with a support network.

"I love to be active, whether that means hiking, traveling, or playing football – I play on a woman's professional tackle football team, and we hit the field at least four times a week," she said. "I have a very strong support system consisting of civilian and military friends that I reach out to frequently – they listen to me when I just need to vent some days."

Many times, however, professional guidance and support can provide better solutions. The Department of Defense has several resources available for personnel to get support, including the Military Crisis Line, which offers confidential, 24/7 support via text-messaging, online chat, and phone service, and the Real Warriors campaign, which advocates to reduce the stigma of mental health care in the military.

"Real Warriors is the DOD's official anti-stigma campaign around mental health care and mental-health care seeking," said Nicholas Polizzi, who holds a doctorate in psychology and serves at the Defense Health Agency's Psychological Health Center of Excellence. The campaign's goals also include "increasing the literacy, education, or understanding of psychological health or health topics and increasing access points to care, particularly for those who don't know how to engage in behavioral health."

As in the case of the Military Crisis Line, Real Warriors is for the entire DOD community, including veterans, active-duty service members, Coast Guard, reserves, their family members, their providers or clinicians, their leaders, and those who care about them, said Polizzi.

For Lua, in addition to engaging in activities on her own and with her family. getting evidence-based, professional mental health treatment is an important aspect to maintaining her overall health.

"I see my therapist at least once every two weeks and also see a psychiatrist twice a month regarding progress or effectiveness of my current treatment and just to make sure I'm doing well," she said. "They educate or introduce new ways for me to help cope with issues I'm dealing with."

This is important for her because it is an unbiased source of support that helps her in two ways.

"I don't know them personally and they are not connected to my job, so there is confidentiality that makes me feel secure to express myself," she said. "Second, just having professional guidance that reinforces that what I am going through is not rare and there are things that are helpful in reducing my anxiety."

In his role leading the Real Warriors campaign, Polizzi works to "normalize psychological health care as everyday health care."

"We understand that there are various symptoms that we all experience which may or may not be related to a mental health concern or issue," he said. "But we know that treatment works - for the vast majority, the right type of treatment will help you feel better.

And with the right treatment to help you feel better, "it also means the military is going to get the very best you," he said.

Lua echoed his thoughts: "Mental health treatment is important because not all patients are successful in dealing with life and its many stressors without help," she said. "Without a mind, the body does not exist."

Her message to those who are reticent about seeking mental health care is, "you are not alone."

"If they feel uncomfortable reaching out to any of the resources, such as the suicide hotline, chaplain, or any available means that are out there," Lua said, "support groups can pave a way to find and connect with people who are feeling the same way they are.

Barth recommends seeking help, too.

"Not everyone's coping mechanisms are the same but talking to a professional can at least help you find what works best for you," she said. "Please give yourself some self-love and make yourself a priority."

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