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Self-Care While Your Spouse Is Deployed

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Having the person closest to you gone can be a huge loss. This is a time when you need to be supportive of your service member, but kind to yourself. You should be as forgiving of yourself and what you are going through as you are of your service member.

"I try not to be so hard on myself. I don't get upset if the house isn't perfectly clean all the time or if we eat take-out a couple of times a week. The kids just need me to be there for them; they don't care if the dishes get done every night."
—National Guard spouse

Remember: identify your emotions and choose to respond in a positive way.

It's OK to feel sad, angry, or lonely—or all of the above; you just don't want to get stuck in those emotions. Instead, find a healthy outlet for these emotions, and understand that your service member cannot necessarily be that outlet. Hopefully, you have a friend you trust, a fellow military spouse, or a close family member who can listen to you when you need to vent. Journaling or writing poetry is another great way of getting your emotions out of your system in a positive way.

"I wrote in a journal daily when my husband was deployed. It really helped me to be able to get out everything I was feeling. I also made sure to exercise daily—it kept me feeling good about myself."
—Army spouse

Find something you enjoy that you can work into your daily routine. Without your partner around, your workload has probably increased and your stress level has certainly increased, so you need to find an outlet to help yourself relax. Maybe this is exercising, meditating, writing, taking a bath, volunteering, or a hobby; the important thing is to find something that helps alleviate stress.

"Reaching out to others and volunteering keeps me busy and helps me not dwell on my own sorrow."
—National Guard spouse

If you have children, you may want to look into putting them into day care once per week so you can run errands by yourself. Taking time for self-care is an important way to help balance the demands of raising children alone while your service member is deployed. Some churches offer "Mommy's Day Out" programs for that very reason. You may also want to contact the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, which is working in partnership with the Department of Defense (DoD) to help military parents locate non-DoD child care. Go to www.naccrra.org for more information. You may also utilize the free DoD membership to Sittercity at www.sittercity.com/dod. Additionally, each branch has different programs to provide child care for deployed service members.

"I scale back on outside responsibilities so I can give more attention to the kids and my own needs."
—Marine spouse

In addition to finding time for yourself, it is equally important to identify and utilize people or groups who can provide the emotional support that your service member cannot. Use this time to do some self-evaluation.

Explore Your Personal Values and Beliefs

Personal values can include many things. You can find value in characteristics that you already have, like honesty, hard work, and being a kind person; in things that you appreciate, such as your family, religion, and your country; and in things you do that bring meaning to your life, like career or group activities.

For many individuals, a good place to start exploring your values and beliefs is through quiet contemplation. Sometimes, it helps to begin with calming meditation to quiet the mind of all the daily things that are occupying and distracting you.

After calming the mind, ask yourself, "What are the things in my life that make my life worth living?" Or, "What would make my life better if I had them or did them?" Write down the values that come to mind. This will help you further clarify your values and prioritize them in order of their importance to you and your family. Be sure to include values you currently have, those you would like to have, and those you admire in others. There is no time limit to this exercise, so allow yourself enough reflection to fully explore your list.

After you compile a list, it's time to prioritize from top to bottom in order of importance. Those five items that end up at the top of the list are your core values. These values will help you to define all the goals you set.

Now that you know your core values, you can focus on setting goals for yourself and your family. Every goal you set should be based upon the five core values you identified. Goals should be attainable and in line with your beliefs and values.

Turn to your branch-specific family readiness groups for added support

Your service member should have given his unit all of your contact information so that you may be included in his unit's family readiness group (FRG) or a similar organization. Information during the deployment should be disseminated to you through your FRG. Many FRG leaders try to arrange events for spouses, host monthly meetings, and distribute a monthly newsletter. If you're unable to participate in regular FRG activities, call your FRG leader and ask to be put on the list of activities for future events and make a monthly phone call to find out scheduled monthly activities for the FRG.

Some spouses are able to gain a great deal of knowledge, comfort, and support through their FRG group. Many spouses find their "deployment buddies" through their FRG or spouse club—someone who is going through the same deployment cycle you are and with whom you can experience the deployment cycle. Other spouses find the formalized group and its meetings uncomfortable or generally unhelpful when it comes to actually coping with the deployment. It can't hurt to give the FRG group a chance. And if this isn't your first deployment and you found your last FRG group unhelpful, it could be run differently during this deployment.

The good news, however, is that many FRG groups have gone "virtual." They have made themselves, and the information they provide, available online. Ask your FRG group if they have an online presence or are interested in developing one.

Find a Mentor Spouse

If this is your first deployment, you may want to find a spouse who has already been through other deployments. Having a seasoned "mentor" in your corner can provide you with the perspective and peace of mind that you may not find by participating in your FRG alone. A mentor can help you avoid thoughts, fears, or behavior that could make the deployment more difficult. There are many emotional landmines that a loved one can unknowingly detonate during every stage of the deployment. Having a mentor will allow you to benefit from the experience of the spouse who has already been through the hardships of a deployment.

Look for spiritual support

Many spouses find support through their churches, temples, synagogues, and other houses of worship. These spouses rely on their personal faith to help them through frightening or difficult times during the deployment. They may become active in their religious communities and find support there. You may want to explore local houses of worship if connecting with a religious community is right for you.

Stay busy

Probably one of the most difficult aspects of a deployment is worrying about your service member. To combat that anxiety, you may want to try redirecting your thoughts. Most spouses find that the best antidote for this anxiety is keeping busy.

On top of keeping your mind off of your service member, finding activities outside of the home can also be very empowering. This is important because in many ways a deployment can make a spouse feel powerless. Spouses may feel as though they spend their days and nights waiting to hear from their service member while simultaneously counting down the days until his return. The most common advice that experienced spouses give spouses facing their first deployment is to get a cell phone and a life! If you find ways to occupy your time, the deployment will go by much more quickly.

"I try to stay busy and focused. Too much time on my hands gives me too much time to panic."
—Army spouse

"I make sure to carve out time for me to do something fun for myself, even if it is something like eating out with girlfriends one night or getting my hair and nails done. I write it in my calendar and keep it like an appointment. I allow myself to have bad days—days where I succumb to being depressed and eat junk food and just be lazy. I cry and let my emotions out, and then I get it together again and face a new day."
—Army spouse

Here Are Some Tips:

  • Focus on the things in your life that you can control as opposed to dwelling on the things you can't—such as the safety of your service member.
  • If possible, some spouses find jobs or volunteer opportunities outside the home.
  • Other spouses become active in their community—military, religious, or secular.

"While I am often lonely, I don't feel sorry for myself and I am not afraid to invite myself out with friends. I don't wait around for someone to call me; I make the call!"
—Navy spouse

Get educated

You now have the time to work on your marketable skills as an individual breadwinner, either by seeking an advanced degree or setting specific educational goals. Explore the offerings at your local universities and community colleges, adult education centers, or online university courses. Increasingly, even universities with physical locations offer online access as well. Make an appointment with a college admissions counselor to determine financial eligibility and course offerings, and consider taking an assessment test to determine your vocational interests and goals.

"I try to learn something new on every deployment. This deployment, I'm thinking of learning a new language."
—Air Force spouse

Focus on your nutrition

"Deployment Diet" is a popular term on military websites and at spouse club meetings, as spouses see deployment as a chance to focus on weight loss. It sounds easy, but the reality is much different. Cooking for one is a hassle. Cooking

for your children when you know you have to do clean up, bath, and bedtime solo can also be overwhelming. Spouses can go into survival mode and allow more fast food, more take-out, or meals void of any real nutritional value.

Weight gain (for both children and adults) is common during deployment. It is also common for spouses to have a weight loss goal in mind so that they can look good in a homecoming outfit. However, the most important goal is caring for your body with a balanced diet and good nutritional habits.

"I try to cook for myself regularly to avoid getting into the habit of eating out, eating junk food, or just eating cereal for dinner."
—Army spouse

Tips for gaining control of your diet:

  • Dieting doesn't work—lifestyle changes do. The idea is to achieve moderation: reduce the servings and serving size of your favorite things, which may be unhealthy, but keep them in your diet. Enjoy your favorite things, but while you are trying to lose weight you may have to settle for a few bites instead of the whole buffet.
  • No one likes food logs, but they work. When you do not track what you eat it is easy to overconsume due to lack of awareness. Daily monitoring is the key to gaining control and to reducing food intake. In numerous studies, this strategy was the most effective technique for controlling food intake.
  • Everything tastes better when we're hungry, so keep yourself fueled. In general, the hungrier you are the better everything tastes. It is a good rule to make sure you don't get too hungry throughout the day by choosing appropriate snacks to satisfy your hunger. This is particularly true in the late afternoon if you have a big gap between lunch and dinner. Most successful weight loss participants find that eating breakfast and a mid-afternoon snack helps them consume less throughout the day. It also helps them make better choices at dinner.
  • Out of sight, out of mouth. It is a lot harder to eat something if it isn't around. At home, do your best not to purchase foods that you don't want to eat. In addition, avoid walking past vending machines at work or fast-food restaurants unless you have planned an alternative to the high-sugar/high-fat options.
  • Eating properly is hard work. It can be more convenient to grab a bag of fast food than to take the time to prepare a healthy meal, especially during a stressful deployment. It is important to find the time to shop for healthy foods and to prepare snacks, lunches, and dinners. It can really help to prepare three or four "go-to" breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for your family that are easy to prepare, healthy, and well received by your family. There might be some resistance from your family at first, but don't get discouraged. If you commit to permanent change you will get better at cooking healthy meals and your family will come around. Most participants report that it takes at least six months.
  • Learn to ride the "Slip 'N Slide." One common mistake in weight loss attempts is to allow one snack of something "bad for you" be the reason to fall off your entire day's diet. It takes determination to make a mistake (a slip) or have a bad weekend (a slide) and turn around and recommit to eating healthily. A slip or slide does not represent total failure—no one is that disciplined. You are in control and you can learn to handle these little slips and slides on your path to a healthier lifestyle.
  • When you feel down, take a walk around. Some of our worst food decisions come when we are feeling stressed, tired, or depressed. Being mindful of how we react in these situations, and how food helps us cope, can be very useful skills to develop. Become aware of the situations where you make your biggest food mistakes. Then, develop strategies to make changes work. The first step might be to eat a smaller portion of comfort food, which shows a much higher awareness! The next step might be to take a walk away from the food and get the equivalent of fifteen minutes of walking, which has shown to significantly improve mood. We cannot always control the stress in our lives, but we can certainly control our reaction.

Tips derived from "Tips for Gaining Control Over Your Diet," PEIA Weight Management Research and Evaluation, West Virginia University College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences.

Strengthen your social networks online

As mentioned in the pre-deployment chapter, spouses can sometimes find much-needed peer support online, with a wealth of message boards for military family members. Interacting online expands the possibilities of support for those who can't attend in-person meetings.

Don't Hesitate to Get Professional Support

Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself still struggling with anxiety, loneliness, or sadness. While it's common to have good days and bad days, prolonged periods of sadness may indicate a need to seek spiritual guidance, such as from your local chaplain, or professional help, such as from your primary care manager (PCM) or a behavioral health provider. If you are a spouse of a deployed National Guard or Reserve member, seek professional advice from your primary care physician, nurse practitioner, health maintenance organization, or local county mental health clinic. For more information on seeking mental health assistance with Tricare (the health care program for uniformed service members, retirees, and their families worldwide) visit www.tricare.mil.

It may also be a good idea to talk to your PCM about any severe anxiety, sleep disturbances, or prolonged periods of sadness that you're experiencing. Your PCM may consider prescribing something to help ease these disruptions to your daily life, and possibly recommend that you see a mental health professional as well.

Working with your PCM, and possibly a mental health professional, can give you an extra layer of support as well as a medical perspective regarding what you are experiencing.

This excerpt is provided courtesy of the acclaimed free digital resource "Everyone Serves." Download your free copy with additional media content today at everyoneservesbook.com.

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Everyone Serves is a free resource developed by experts both inside and outside government – and military family members themselves to help the family, friends and support network of service members better manage the deployment and reintegration process. It helps build resilience, strengthens relationships, teaches coping strategies, and prepares you to manage reunion and reintegration. Download today for a great resource that gives you the tools to keep your family strong before, during and after deployment.