Kelley Russell, PhD., says that Veterans are particularly vulnerable to stress because of their past experiences. She notes that past stressors can continue to follow them through life and create behaviors like hypervigilance, quick response, avoidance, depression, irritability, and others. And, feeling stressed can create false alarms that start these feelings and behaviors which do not help you deal with it.
So, how does Russell move forward?
“I have found many ways of dealing with stress over the years,” she says. “I exercise, do breathing techniques, and practice mindfulness. But even with all that, I feel I could do with a little help from time to time.”
Russell is a clinical psychologist who meets many Veterans reporting feeling stressed or anxious. “It’s important to realize that stress is a natural part of life,” she says. “Everyone should feel stressed sometimes. Stress can be good in that it motivates us perhaps to deal with things – but you just need to be reflective and aware when that stress is becoming too much.”
According to Russell, stress can come from physical threats, like a bear or a car coming towards you or some threat you anticipate, like thinking you are going to lose your job. When that happens, Russell says your brain dumps stress chemicals to make you respond. This can make your heart race faster, make you sweat, or make you worry and have negative thoughts.
Past stressors can create continuing behaviors
Navy Veteran John Leaf (above) experienced a lot of stress during his service time off the coast of Vietnam. As a quartermaster, he says he would go on “suicide missions” into territory with waters that were not charted accurately.
Leaf says that he dealt with his stress over the years by throwing himself into work and looking for something to hide his stress. He enjoys cooking and baking as a relaxing activity. In the photo above, Leaf proudly displays his latest batch of crabapple jelly.
“I would work at one thing and then I would find myself jumping to another thing and then jumping to another thing,” Leaf says.
Support groups help manage stress
Eventually, Leaf started going to support groups at Alaska VA Healthcare. He attended groups on wellness and mindfulness, yoga, and one dealing with anxiety and depression. He met many other Veterans going through similar things and was able to use these and other resources to help manage his stress.
During his time in service, Leaf says many could not get help with their stress. “It’s very, very difficult to say, ‘I need help,’ and many times it was considered unmanly to say. It might not have been written but it was a very, very strong unwritten rule.”
Now Leaf encourages Veterans to get the help they need if stress is overwhelming them.
For help, there are free VA apps like the Mindfulness Coach app or the Moving Forward app to deal with stress.
Katie Yearley is a public affairs specialist for the Alaska VA Healthcare System and Regional Office.