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Ask the Doc: How Do I Get Rid of the 'Dark Cloud' Over My Holidays?

A mask hanging on a Christmas tree A face mask hangs from a tree during Operation Holiday Relief at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Dec. 4. Deployments and COVID concerns are just two factors that have the potential to impact service members’ mental health this holiday season (Photo by Airman 1st Class Charles Casner, 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs).

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Dear Doc: 

I'm not currently deployed overseas, but work commitments (and now COVID-19 concerns) have kept me away from my extended family for several years in a row. Lately, I've felt the depression creeping in. It's like I've got a dark cloud over me from a few days before Thanksgiving until a few days after New Year's. I'm not necessarily stressed - just bored and alone. I drink sometimes, but I try not to use it as a crutch when I'm feeling bad...and I realize that could only make things worse.

What can I do to help myself feel better? Should I talk to someone? Are there online resources? I would really like to shake these feelings. Thanks in advance, Doc!

-Downhearted in December

Illustration of a male face with the words "Ask the Doc"

Dear Downhearted: First of all, thank you for your service. I know it might seem cliché, but the sacrifices you've made, and continue to make to ensure the safety and security of your country don't go unnoticed, especially during the holidays. That said, we are here to help you get to a place that you feel better about it. Mental health is an extremely important part of personal and mission readiness.

I spoke to Jane Olien, a licensed clinical social worker assigned to Behavioral Health Clinical Operations, part of the Defense Health Agency's Medical Affairs/Clinical Support Division, in San Antonio, Texas, about the way you're feeling and she suggested several tips and resources. Many of her suggestions involve something that's probably sitting right next to you, but you may never have thought of as a tool to help combat feelings of depression...your smartphone:


The holidays can be a difficult time, especially when coupled with the stressors of work expectations, being away from family and an ongoing global pandemic that has changed our living and working environments in ways that we could never have imagined. You have already taken the first step by asking the question: What can I do? Think back on what you have done in the past. What worked and what didn't? What works best for you? What brings you joy? You are the expert on yourself, so remember that.

You are on target with recognizing that drinking can make things worse. There are many good alternatives including exercise, a walk outside, calling a friend, video calls with loved ones and grounding/mindfulness exercises. When we feel lonely and bored it can be hard to turn to the healthier alternative, but you can do it! One way to use technology to help yourself in doing that is to use your smart device to set reminders to take a break, a walk, exercise, call a friend or engage in some other activity that you find relaxing or fun. Another idea is to use your Notes app at the end of each day to jot down one or two good things that have happened or to start the day with one or two intentions - nothing big, just a couple of things that may help you feel lighter. If you have a journal, or even a sticky note, handwriting these things is even better. Acknowledging and validating your feelings is critical when you are going through tough times.

You are not alone in experiencing the 'dark cloud' and low level of depression, especially around the holidays. It is more common than you may think, and getting help is as close as your phone. The key to getting through this time is to use the resources that are readily accessible. Here are a few easy-to-access things that may be helpful in facing challenging times:

Military Crisis Line

The Military Crisis Line, text-messaging service, and online chat provides free support for all service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and all veterans, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care. Call: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, text: 838255 or chat: www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/chat.

Military OneSource

Military OneSource provides access to confidential Military Family Life Counselors in your community. Go to: militaryonesource.mil or call: 1-800-342-9647. Military OneSource also provides resources so you can manage stress and access benefits and tools that will help you stay strong in body and mind.

This page also provides access to self-care mobile applications developed within the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and other partners. All mobile applications are free and for iOS and Android devices: www.militaryonesource.mil/health-wellness/recommended-wellness-apps/

The Mindfulness Coach is easy to use for anyone new to the practice of mindfulness. There are also apps for tracking sleep, substance use, dealing with the stressors of COVID as well as some specific treatment that a provider may offer. The Mindfulness Coach and other apps are available at: mobile.va.gov/appstore/mental-health

Military Health System and TRICARE Web Pages

There are two sources of information on the Military Health System websites, specifically the mental health pages. The links are here:

MHS: www.health.mil/mentalhealth

TRICARE: www.tricare.mil/mentalhealth

Your Local Military Medical Treatment Facility

Behavioral Health providers are integrated into many of our primary care clinics. Contact your primary care manager to see if this resource is available at your local MTF. If it is, you can schedule an appointment same day. Many of our MTFs also have Behavioral Health Clinics - please call your local MTF for an appointment.


Downhearted, I hope this information helps you in getting out from under the "cloud" that you've found yourself under for the past several years. As Ms. Olien said, "You are the expert on yourself,"; so it's up to you to figure out what works best for you. The resources are there. You just need to figure out what fits your situation.

And it may not happen this holiday season, but if you start now, I'm sure you'll be on the road to feeling better and be ready by this time next year. Sometimes, things like this take time, but you have to take the first step in initiating the conversations that will lead you to a better place. At the very least, you'll have the tools at your disposal to face this situation head-on before it happens again.

Here's to a "Happier Holidays" and take care out there!


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