The year is winding down, and with that comes many emotions— other than holiday excitement. With short, dark days and long nights, many people start to feel the physical and mental effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly referred to as winter depression, during this time of year. While SAD affects everyone differently, it can impact some communities more severely than others. Within the last decade, studies have shown that veterans are five times more likely to suffer from depression and mental illness than civilians— not to mention 15 times more likely to experience PTSD specifically. So, in this article, we’ll provide veterans with seasonal affective disorder self care tips and how to make health a priority this winter.
Practical Self Care Tips for Veterans
The compounded stressors of the military lifestyle put the veteran community at risk for SAD, among other physical and mental health issues. Whether you’re newly retired or your service was many years ago, it’s equally important to keep these tips at the top of your mind this winter and beyond. Of course, thinking about health as a whole can be overwhelming, which is why we’ve broken it down into four simple, manageable steps.
Monitor Physical Changes
The first step in taking care of yourself this winter is to keep an eye on any changes in your physical health. Veterans can be more prone to chronic pain, hearing loss, or arthritis from their time in the service. These issues often tend to worsen during the winter and colder weather, so now is the time to start being aware of your body and how it may be affecting your winter depression. Depending on where you served and for how long, there are other long-term and severe health conditions to look out for.
In recent years, new studies and inspections have found forever chemical exposures on bases across all branches of the military. You may have recently seen commercials or news coverage about the toxic exposures at Camp Lejeune, which have now been linked to various cancers, birth defects, and other health issues. It’s important to stay up to date on the affected military bases and monitor any abnormal symptoms you may be experiencing. Outside of military bases, different types of military equipment and gear also could have led to exposure to hazardous materials during your time in the service.
Now that you’re up to date on the possible risks, what’s next? The simple answer is to make sure you’re attending regular doctor appointments. It’s rare to find someone who enjoys going to the doctor, however, as a veteran you need to stay on top of your health and keep your doctor in the loop. Make sure to disclose any irregularities in your current health, as well as your military and family histories. This will allow your doctor to examine you properly and perform any additional tests they feel necessary.
Aside from being proactive with doctor visits and self-examinations, another way to stay on top of your physical and mental health is to get out and exercise. Something as simple as a morning walk on the treadmill or joining a community kickball league can be a great start. Daily fitness may seem like an obvious essential for anyone trying to stay in shape, but for veterans struggling with their mental state, these small activities can make a noticeable impact on daily happiness.
In a 2014 study, the VA estimated approximately 78% of veterans are overweight or obese. This increases the possibility of physical problems like heart disease, diabetes, or stroke. On top of that, being overweight or obese is also connected to a decline in mental health. This domino effect needs to be stopped at the source, and exercise is a great start.
If you’re a veteran struggling with weight gain, don’t feel like you need to snap back into shape by buying a gym membership or running a marathon. In fact, small activities can go a long way. Start with low-impact exercises to make sure you’re not adding any additional stress onto your joints. Two great examples with many benefits are walking and swimming. Walking for 30 minutes a day can help improve your cardiovascular health, maintain your weight, and strengthen your bones. Not only that, but walking can also give you more energy and focus as you take on your daily responsibilities.
If you have access to a local pool, swimming is another great exercise to try. Swimming is one of the lowest-impact exercises and is a great way to both stretch your muscles and improve blood flow and circulation. Look at local YMCAs, colleges or universities, or community centers for available pools in your area.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
In addition to exercise and regular doctor appointments, watching what you eat can also make a significant difference in your overall well-being. A well-balanced diet can keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in check, maintain your gut health, improve your mood and even your sleep habits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recognized that veterans tend to have a lower-quality diet than non-veterans. This behavior can be associated with the meals provided on bases during the time of service. The continued consumption of solid fats— certain meats, vegetable oils, and dairy products— in combination with high amounts of less-nutritious added sugars contribute to this discrepancy in diet quality. Due to this, it’s a good practice to keep added sugars to under 10% of your calorie intake and to eat more healthy fats— avocado, fish, and nuts. Also, incorporate more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables into your everyday diet. If you’re looking for a good place to start, utilize the VA services for nutrition and dietary care.
A healthy diet doesn’t start and end with less junk food and more greens, it also extends into other consumption habits. Nicotine and alcohol consumption also greatly contribute to weight gain and depressed thoughts. If you’re someone struggling with SAD or depression in a more severe case, regularly consuming a depressant (alcohol) will only contribute to this decline. Reducing alcohol and nicotine usage can help to limit this decline.
Prioritize Mental Wellness
All three of the above tips can have a direct effect on your overall mental health; however, a little exercise and a healthier diet aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution for SAD and winter depression. There are other natural remedies to help ease seasonal depression, including light therapy, vitamin D supplements, and mental health counseling.
Use a SAD Light
Studies show that light therapy can greatly minimize the symptoms of depression during the dark winter months. Investing in a SAD lamp can be an inexpensive and productive start in improving your daily mood. A SAD lamp simulates sunlight in an attempt to increase serotonin production. By sitting in front of the lamp for 10-20 minutes each morning, you can get that much-needed light your body needs to wake up and feel energized for the day. It can also reduce the amount of melatonin your body produces during the daytime, which causes you to feel tired and unfocused.
Take Your Supplements
Vitamin D supplements are another way to combat the symptoms of SAD. Sunlight is the largest and most important source of natural vitamin D, which is why gloomy winter months can often provide an insufficient amount of what the body needs. Vitamin D helps to build and maintain bone health, strengthen your immune system and boost mood. Taking supplements of vitamin D while the days are short and dark can give your body that missing piece to help it function.
Whether you struggle with SAD, depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any other mental illness, counseling is an important and incredibly effective route to look into for any veteran. The VA provides counseling services through 300 locations across all 50 states. Reach out to a representative to look at the best options for you.
If you’re in Canada, you want to explore The Veterans Affair Canada counseling options.
To our veterans, thank you for your service and sacrifice. We wish nothing but good health and happiness for those who bravely served our country. We hope these simple tips can help jump-start you into a healthier winter season and help combat the symptoms of SAD.
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