Resilience is a word that military families hear often, so often that it may just sound like a modern buzzword tossed out at briefings and townhall meetings. While the term speaks to toughness, the more important meaning is the ability to bounce back, recover, and be flexible. Unfortunately, the latter often gets lost. As both a mental health professional within the military community and a member of the community personally, I too have had my moments of cringing at what seems like the overuse of “resiliency.” And then I met a military family who helped refresh this term for me.
While working with a family who was preparing for their final deployment before retirement, the service member dad recounted a year of deep grief, loss and stressors that this family has faced. The dad said to me, “We’ve done many deployments and hardships as a family over the last 20 years, but this time, we are going into it less bouncy.”
It was not that this family was not tough or not resilient. This family had been stretched in so many directions in the recent months that there was “less give” and less speed and height in their bounce. Resilience should not be seen as a trait that one either has or does not have, rather it is better compared to a ball of Play-Doh that we all have; each having different characteristics. When working with Play-Doh, you knead it to create springiness and elasticity before molding it into your required shape. You also rest and knead dough after stretching it too far has left the dough thin and torn. The kneading process gives strength; it gives the toughness. When thinking about resilience, practicing self-care is the kneading process.
Many people can tell me what stress management is, but I have found greater difficulty when my clients are asked to define self-care. Stress management is a reactive practice that occurs once experiences and events have already begun taking their toll. Self-care, on the other hand, is proactive and best takes place regularly in order to lessen the effect of stressors. When you take care of yourself regularly and intentionally, it is like putting money in that emergency savings or “rainy day” fund. Saving that money will not necessarily prevent stressful events from happening, like an unexpected home repair or tire replacements, but it will lessen the setback because you had more resources already at hand.
Self-care can take on many forms and is not limited to two of the most popular physical domains that I hear: basic needs (eating well, sleeping, and exercising) and pampering (manicures, hair appointments, and spa trips). A helpful acronym for self-care and the variety that it encompasses is: RESPECT.
Playing/watching sports, board games, TV shows and movies, hunting
Connecting with trusted friends and family, journaling, giving yourself positive praise and affirmations, allowing time and space to cry when needed
Time in prayer and/or meditation, time spent at your place of worship, reading scripture, devotionals, and/or other religious literature, allowing yourself to be reflective
Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercise, outdoor walks, playing sports, making time for medical appointments (to include preventative care), taking time for physical intimacy with yourself and/or your partner, getting massages
Employment and Educational
Leaving work on time, saying no sometimes to extra responsibilities, engage in the activities that you love most about your work, sign up for a class that interests you at a local college or online, volunteer for a cause that you are passionate about, listen to podcasts that strike your interest and foster learning
Spending time with others whose company you enjoy, having friends over for dinner or a game night, going to a community event and meeting people, staying in contact with important family and friends
Preparing a meal, organizing a cluttered space, washing the car, completing errands like grocery shopping, cleaning, meal prepping for the week, gardening, creating lists and reminders
The activities and practices that help you better take care of yourself are likely different from those that would bring joy, connection, relaxation and accomplishment to your partner and children. Your needs will also shift as the events and experiences in your life change. When working with military families experiencing deployments, it has been helpful to guide parents in reflection on their self-care needs before the deployment begins, for each member during the separation, and upon homecoming and reintegration. For self-care to be the kneading process for your own and your family’s resiliency, consider these steps:
- Consider the self-care needs:
- Identify what domains of self-care are most important to you and fill you with the “resources” to handle daily life and big stressors.
- Help your family identify their needs as well.
- Know that sometimes self-care does not actually happen as a “self-only” activity. Spending time with your partner or with the entire family can very well be an important form of care taking to you.
- Make time for self-care:
- Reflect on how you currently spend time in your day, and locate ways in which you could arrange time for self-care activities.
- Self-care can be introduced as a family practice, where time is set aside for members of the family to engage in their own self-care activities. This may allow for parents to have some additional time for something that brings them more energy while also modeling to children the importance of taking care of themselves thoughtfully and intentionally.
- Follow through on your intention:
- Self-care is a lot like putting that oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others on the airplane. If we always respond to others’ needs before our own, we risk being less efficient and less helpful. If you are running out of your own oxygen, you have a lot less to give to others and may also feel irritable or tapped out while doing it.
- Make appointments with yourself and protect that time as you would a doctor’s visit. Spending time on yourself in any of the domains (such as physically, emotionally, spiritually or recreationally) is worth it and no less important than appointments that you make with other people.
As a member of a military family, your resilience will go through many phases of stretching, bouncing, experiencing tears, and be molded into accomplishments. No matter how bouncy you or your family is today, self-care is an important tool to maintain, improve, recover and promote resilience. As you consider the needs of your family and seek more information on how to balance your family’s toughness with flexibility, download the two-part Battle Plan for Military Children’s Mental Wellness. There you will discover relevant and important information on keeping your family strong through both the ordinary and toughest military family experiences.