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News from CNREURAFCENT

The Importance of Self-Care

23 May 2022

From Matthew R. Picerno, Ph.D., Educational and Developmental Intervention Services (EDIS), U.S. NMRTC / Naval Hospital Sigonella, Italy

I wanted to delve into an issue that has deep resonance for the majority of the community, one stemming from a two-year crisis that first struck at our physical health, but also impacts our emotional well-being. Many people are familiar with what is often called the “fight or flight response,” that deeply-rooted, hardwired reaction to intense fear or terror, characterized by either immediately tensing up to defend against a threat, or preparing to launch into a burst of speed to escape the danger as fast as possible. Some also add a third category to this pair of responses, referred to as “freeze:” this basically involves shutting down entirely in the face of danger, often from a sense of complete helplessness and inability to change the situation to any meaningful degree.
I’m hoping everyone is having a wonderful month so far – it’s an honor to have an opportunity to share for the purpose of Mental Health Awareness! I wanted to delve into an issue that has deep resonance for the majority of the community, one stemming from a two-year crisis that first struck at our physical health, but also impacts our emotional well-being.

Many people are familiar with what is often called the “fight or flight response,” that deeply-rooted, hardwired reaction to intense fear or terror, characterized by either immediately tensing up to defend against a threat, or preparing to launch into a burst of speed to escape the danger as fast as possible. Some also add a third category to this pair of responses, referred to as “freeze:” this basically involves shutting down entirely in the face of danger, often from a sense of complete helplessness and inability to change the situation to any meaningful degree.

One element common to each of these varied responses is that they provide a way (for better or worse) to deal with some sort of real or perceived threat to our health, safety, or survival. These responses are thought to have served a very helpful purpose in ancient times by protecting us from many of the dangers that we no longer have to deal with in a modern, civilized society: think, for example, about the predators in nature that represented an all-too-real threat to our ancestors. These fight, flight, and freeze responses are also associated with very intense changes in our bodies, stemming from shifts in body chemistry that accompany a surge of hormones.

Many of the threats that we deal with today elicit a similar reaction in us, bringing to mind some of those very same bodily responses as well: clenched fists, rapid heartbeat, sweating palms, quickened breathing, and flushed face just to name a few. All of these served some protective or beneficial function for a person facing immediate danger.

However, we are only designed to deal with the intense circumstances triggering the adrenaline burst for very short, isolated periods of time – just until the threat passed, we were able to ward it off, or (alternatively) get ourselves to safety. We are not built to remain locked in that type of strained state for an extended, prolonged period of time.

The COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately required us to do just that. Rather than dealing with a relatively time-limited threat to our community, society, and the world as a whole – after which we could conceivably “shift” back to a relatively normal existence – we instead remained stuck in a limbo state. Family and educational routines were disrupted, careers were placed in jeopardy, relationships were strained, businesses were lost, and too many lives were taken from us. Even the most basic elements of daily life were completely upended as we dealt with extended quarantines and restrictions on leaving the house unless going to work, the grocery store, or to a doctor’s appointment – absolutely necessary protections for public health, to be sure, but ones that can nevertheless bring their own set of emotional challenges.

While some of those realities almost seem a bad memory at this point (maybe a nightmare?), their effects remain. For example, parents took on the role of teacher, traded off duty times with spouses in dual-working families, and experienced a sharp disconnect from the social events and connections that keep us going on a day-to-day basis.

Although it was an incredibly difficulty time for so many, the full, long-term damage from the global pandemic on our psychological reserves is only starting to come into focus. The emotional stress has many feeling like they’re at a breaking point. Even children and adults who have seemed able to “hold it together” are just now starting to experience the signs of long-term wear that accompanies catastrophic events. These responses often show up in what seem unrelated circumstances, like feeling disconnected from those with whom we used to be close, lashing out at friends for seemingly no real reason, falling apart at the prospect of another school project or presentation, and intense relationship strain between family members and spouses.

We may now be starting to turn a page in terms of infection prevalence rates, which suggests that we’ve come to somewhat of a safer place than before. What often follows in similar situations is the unrealistic expectation that we should be OK that point – almost as though there shouldn’t be any excuse for struggling, since that one aspect of the danger has lessened. Although some of the more immediate physical threat may have passed, the sense of trauma from this constant state of disruption and unpredictability is still very much present, and will understandably continue to take a psychological toll further into the future.

Because of this reality, the importance of maintaining self-care simply can’t be overstated. Finding any way to reconnect with others, to re-engage in life, to travel, exercise, play games, do puzzles, tap into creative interests, and explore other enjoyable interactive activities will have a major healing effects on that prolonged emotional strain.

Now more than ever, it’s absolutely essential that we also stay attuned to each other, to be on the alert for any signs of needing help from our friends, co-workers, children, and loved ones when they occur, and to encourage and guide them towards that help whenever we can.

Things to be on the lookout for include signs of emotional fatigue, sleep disruption, depressed mood, new fears and worries (especially in response to things that didn’t seem problematic in the past), noticeable changes in patterns or habits, and declining to engage in activities that used to be considered fun.

Counseling support is readily available in schools (including from the School Psychologist, School Counselor, and MFLC services), medical facilities (e.g., Behavioral Health Clinic; Imbedded Behavioral Health Clinician support), from community organizations (Fleet and Family Support Center counseling services) and even through online resources, using new TeleHealth modalities of service that became so much more accessible throughout the pandemic – MilitaryOneSource, for example, is a great resource for military families with so many aspects of life, including 24/7/365 online (https://www.militaryonesource.mil/confidential-help/non-medical-counseling) or phone (+1 (800) 342 9647) counseling. In addition, Chaplain support is well-embedded and accessible in nearly every military community, offering a range of counseling approaches that best fit your comfort level, including the option to not have a religious aspect incorporated.

These last couple of years have understandably heightened and exacerbated underlying emotional difficulties that many (children, teens, and adults) could have been able to reasonably manage if it weren’t for the intensified stressors of this long scale trauma. As we consider the significance of this month in particular, it’s so critical that we maintain awareness of the need for emotional support all around us – the workplace, the home, the neighborhood, and with ourselves – especially in the context of the global pandemic.

I wish everyone a wonderful rest of the spring, and an even better summer, filled with relaxation and opportunities to recharge – something deeply needed for the community and the world. We owe it to ourselves and anyone about whom we care. All my best to you and your families!
 
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