How can veterans find balance and take better care of their mental health during the pandemic?

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Veteran mental health has been in the spotlight for several years now, and, thankfully, the numerous awareness campaigns, Government, and NGO-funded programs have yielded positive results. According to the VA’s Office of Research & Development, more than 1.7 million veterans have received treatment in a VA mental health specialty program in 2018, and, as a result, the incidence of suicide among veterans has dropped in the past ten years. However, veterans remain a vulnerable group, and we can’t pretend that challenges such as PTSD, stress, anxiety, isolation, and depression don’t exist.

Now, the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis are starting to be felt too, making mental health management even more difficult for veterans.

According to a survey conducted by Help for Heroes, more and more veterans are struggling to cope with the psychological effect of the pandemic:

  • 50% of veterans said that they’re finding it harder to take care of their mental health compared to before the pandemic
  • 57% said that living under lockdown made their mental health worse
  • 66% are worried about the evolution of their mental health

 

If you are a veteran who recognizes themselves in these figures, you might find that control and balance are harder to come by these days, but remember that you are not alone and that, even in these challenging circumstances, you can get help and learn how to take care of your emotional well being.

Choose online therapy sessions, if possible.

Many veterans were part of mental health programs that offered free therapy sessions before the pandemic, but most offices have had to close down due to social distancing restrictions. If you haven’t been able to meet with your therapist in person since then, call your local VA office to ask about the possibility of online sessions.

 

The Department of Veteran affairs has actually been very involved in adapting the therapy programs to the safety rules so that now, 80% of veterans talk to their therapists remotely. If you haven’t been to an online therapy session before, the experience is just as rewarding and empowering as the in-person one. It can help you maintain consistency in your treatment and even help you cope better with existing symptoms, as well as the anxiety and stress induced by the pandemic.

 

Coping with sleep disturbances

Studies show that veterans are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders compared to the rest of Americans. The most affected group are veterans with PTSD, who usually experience problems such as insomnia, nightmares, night sweats, and sleep apnea. If you add to that the anxiety triggered by the pandemic, things could get worse. Sleep might not seem that important, but multiple studies have shown that sleep deficiency takes a heavy toll on a person’s mental health, causing all sorts of issues, from memory lapses to irritability and inability to focus. At the same time, an irregular sleeping schedule lowers your immune system’s defenses, accelerating the aging process and making you susceptible to viruses and bacteria.

 

As a veteran, you may probably acknowledge that a good night’s rest is easier said than done, but these strategies can help:

 

  • Turn your bedroom into a warm and welcoming space by starting a redecoration project. Changing the bed placement and buying a better mattress can help you feel more comfortable and fall asleep faster.  
  • Limit your news and social media consumption before bedtime, since it’s been proven to raise anxiety levels
  • Specialized apps such as Insomnia Coach, SHUT-I, and CBT-i Coach can help you manage insomnia through guided training plans that track and improve sleep.
  • Avoid hearty meals before bedtime; try to eat the final meal of the day at least three hours before going to bed, and avoid caffeine, sugars, and unhealthy fats. A glass of warm milk and chamomile tea can also help.
  • Read a book before bedtime. Studies show that reading decreases sleep levels by 68%, which is more than listening to music or walking. Reading makes your eyes tired, and 39% of people who read before falling asleep have better sleep quality.

 

Physical exercise is like medicine for military veterans.

For veterans, one of the biggest shocks after homecoming is that they have to switch quickly from being active every day to having a sedentary lifestyle back at home. Incorporating more physical exercises into your daily routine can help you in two ways. First, it gives you a sense of purpose and keeps you busy. And second, exercise can treat mild to moderate depression almost as effectively as antidepressant medication. Did you know that even a short 15-minute run can reduce the risk of major depression by 26%? Additionally, focusing on your body movements during exercise instead of letting your mind wander helps your nervous system become “unstuck” and aid in the management of PTSD symptoms. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you choose. Whether you like running, brisk walking, rock climbing, sailing, or Pilates, the results are just as beneficial: sharper memory, higher self-esteem, better sleep quality, increased energy, and stronger emotional resilience to cope with the challenges that life throws at you.

 

You need coping mechanisms – but the healthy kind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone. It’s alright to acknowledge that you’re confused and anxious about the whole situation, and it’s alright to create some coping mechanisms to help you get through, as long as they’re not harmful to your physical and mental health. As tempting as they might be, don’t resort to smoking, drinking, gambling, or drug use; while they provide a momentary distraction, they cause a lot of harm in the long run. Instead, establish a healthy support system: talk to your family and friends as often as possible, to your therapist, or join online communities that share your interests. The pandemic is also a great occasion to pick up a hobby: reading, gardening, woodworking, hiking, scrapbooking, and cooking can help restore calm and keep you grounded.

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