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Service members share what works for them to relieve stress

Image of Military personnel in a yoga pose. For Heather Guntherberg, acting chief of pharmacy services at McDonald Army Health Center, in Fort Eustis, Virginia, yoga is a key element to de-stressing (Courtesy of Heather Guntherberg).

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As part of the Military Health System’s efforts to promote mental health awareness, service members and staff from several military medical treatment facilities shared what works for them to relieve stress and maintain their mental health.

Heather Guntherberg, who holds a doctorate in pharmacy and is the acting chief of pharmacy services at McDonald Army Health Center in Fort Eustis, Virginia, said meditation and exercise are key for her.

"Cultivating the right perspective is the foundation for my day at home and in clinic," she said. "In order to establish this, I begin and end each day in stillness with meditation. This allows me to make conscious decisions, set my intentions for serving others, and how I make nutritional choices. I also incorporate exercise and yoga daily."

Ashley Lebrecht, a records management specialist at McDonald Army Health Center (AHC), is also a full-time working mom and a military spouse for whom stress can become a huge factor in daily life.

"A few years ago, I decided to set a designated 'one-hour me time' to myself to unwind and dedicate myself to exercise," she said. "Some of the exercises I enjoy are lifting, running, yoga, or riding my stationary bike."

She explained that taking that hour to herself allows her to focus on her goals, improve her mood, and shut out all other distractions for that hour.

"I have found that exercise has been the best way to relax my mind, body, cope with stress, and be able to live a longevity life," she added.

For pediatrics care coordinator Maria Franzuela-Santiago, a registered nurse at McDonald AHC, faith is her go-to stress reliever.

"Life's many troubles could intensify my depression and anxiety," she said. "What works for me is relying on my Lord, Jesus Christ, to give me a prayerful and grateful reaction to his tests in my life, no matter how painful."

For others, like Army Staff Sgt. Jacquie Zabala, an allergy and dermatology noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) at McDonald AHC, maintaining a positive outlook and being optimistic are good stress relievers.

"I find that smiling every day and laughter makes me less stressed and able to handle anything," she said. "Also, spreading laughter and joy helps me release built-up stress – staying positive and enthusiastic is what works for me."

At Blanchfield Army Community Hospital (BACH), in Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Army Sgt. First Class Donald White, NCOIC of preventive medicine, stresses about life after the Army and setting himself up for success in terms of finances, education, job requirements. But he enjoys multiple activities to help him de-stress.

Military personnel running
Many service members have found that running is a good way to relieve stress (Photo by: Air Force Airman 1st Class Briana Beavers).

"One is woodworking," he said. "Hearing the sound of the table saw cutting the wood makes me forget about all the issues around me and allows me to focus on one thing for a change, and I love to see the end product."

He also enjoys playing games with his Army friends and spending time with family when he can.

"We love to go to the farmers market and walk the town, just anything to get out of the house," he said.

His colleague, Army Staff Sgt. Jeannine Valencia, NCOIC of the patient administration division at BACH, feels stress when she is unable to meet weekly goals or when her mother and grandmother are away.

To relieve that stress, she enjoys activities including running, listening to music, spending time with family and her dog, and volunteering in the community.

"Running as I listen to my music playlist helps me focus on the path in front of me and minimizes any potentially stressful thoughts," she said. "After the run I feel more head clarity and tranquility, and it allows me to think more clearly and organize my thoughts in a more pragmatic way."

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Robert Hess, deputy chief of the pastoral care department at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, in Virginia, relies on a work-life balance to prioritize his personal health and well-being. He attributes doing so to the mental health care he sought years ago to due to burnout, a heavy workload, stress, and anxiety.

"I was constantly tired, lacking energy, motivation, and a positive outlook," he said. "Every day seemed a grind."

Since he had grown up in a culture that elevated strength, independence, and a strong self-will to overcome, he was reluctant to seek help to avoid being seen as weak or fragile.

"Fortunately, through the encouragement of family and friends, I reached out," he said. "I spent a little more than a year with a mental health counselor who helped me lift the weight off my shoulders by examining underlying beliefs, motivations, fears, and anxieties that caused me to push myself so hard."

He also learned helpful tactics and techniques to emotionally regulate, resulting in improved mental clarity and a better decision-making process and strategy, he said. Today, he relies on practicing spiritual meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, sports and strength training, and being outdoors in nature to de-stress.

"For me, everything we think, say, or do impacts our spirit, our soul, our energy, so I try to meditate regularly on all things good," he said. "When we don't have seasons for rest and methods for stress relief, our bodies keep the score."

For him, mental health treatment is vitally important. He wants others to know "you are not alone."

"It takes considerable strength and courage to step up and ask for help," he said. Doing so, "makes you a hero to yourself and to others who may also find life-saving help because of your valiant stand."

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