The holidays can be a sensitive and often unpredictable time for families, especially those with veterans. When spending the holidays with a veteran, several different things should be considered when they’re around. Holiday celebrations and spending time with family members can be incredibly triggering and overwhelming for veterans’ mental health and well-being.
Understanding the Mental Health Challenges of Veterans
Military culture can profoundly impact veterans, shaping their identities, perspectives, and experiences even after their military service ends. Military service members are accustomed to a disciplined lifestyle of resilience and sacrifice, which can be especially difficult when adjusting to civilian life. A prevalent issue in the military is the mental health challenges active service members and veterans face. After retiring from the military, most veterans never seek treatment or therapy for their mental and emotional health. Leaving unhealthy emotions and trauma untreated allows them to fester and build up over time, often resulting in a mental health disorder.
It’s important to note that the impact of holidays on veterans’ mental health can vary widely depending on individual circumstances, past experiences, and available support networks. Recognizing these potential impacts and providing appropriate support and resources can help veterans navigate the holiday season more effectively.
Types of Mental Health Disorders in Veterans
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most common mental health condition among veterans. It can develop after experiencing or witnessing traumatic events, such as combat, violence, or life-threatening situations. PTSD symptoms may include intrusive memories, flashbacks, emotional numbness, and avoidance of trauma-related triggers. Veterans often experience PTSD triggers during the holidays that remind them of traumatic incidents from military service.
All of the challenges of transitioning back to civilian life, loss of camaraderie, physical injuries, and the burden of traumatic memories are all factors that can cause depression in veterans. Symptoms of depression can include persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. The combination of untreated mental health conditions, the impact of trauma, and feelings of isolation contribute to the heightened risk of suicide in veterans.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder are among veterans’ anxiety disorders. These conditions can manifest as excessive worry, restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and avoidance of certain situations or places. Substance use disorders (SUDs) are prevalent in veterans that turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the emotional and psychological challenges they face. A study on military personnel found that approximately 30% of suicides and 20% of deaths due to high-risk behavior were associated with alcohol or drug use. Drug and alcohol addiction in veterans can exacerbate mental health issues, impair daily functioning, and take a toll on relationships.
How Holidays Can Affect Veterans’ Well-Being
Holidays can have both positive and negative impacts on veterans’ mental health. While the holidays are intended to be a time of relaxation and celebration, veterans don’t always have that type of experience. Every family has different dynamics and unique circumstances over the holidays, some more desirable than others. The holidays can be incredibly challenging for veterans with mental health challenges and social insecurities in crowded environments. Stepping outside your comfort zone as a veteran has different obstacles than the general population, such as sensory sensitivities, reintegration challenges, and the stigma associated with military service. Recognizing the warning signs of mental and behavioral health conditions in veterans is crucial for promoting their health and well-being.
Triggers for PTSD
Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience holiday-related triggers that remind them of traumatic events from the military. Fireworks, loud noises, or crowded gatherings can evoke distressing memories, leading to increased anxiety, irritability, and hypervigilance.
Holidays emphasize spending time with loved ones and celebrating together, often evoking strong emotions, and for veterans, this can be incredibly complex. They may experience a mix of positive feelings associated with celebrations and family gatherings and negative emotions related to past traumas or the absence of comrades who did not make it back home. Veterans may feel a profound sense of loneliness and isolation during these festive times, which may exacerbate symptoms of depression and feelings of disconnection.
Festive environments can be overwhelming for veterans, particularly those with sensory sensitivities from their military experiences. Bright lights, loud music, and crowded spaces can trigger sensory overload and anxiety, causing distress and discomfort. Veterans with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can experience cognitive impairments, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and increased sensory sensitivities during the holidays.
Coping with Loss and Grief
Holidays can be painful reminders of fallen comrades or family members who have passed away. Veterans may experience grief, sadness, and a sense of loss during these occasions, intensifying feelings of hopelessness and affecting their mental health. The absence of those who shared their military experiences can be deeply felt, impacting their well-being and overall holiday experience.
The financial demands associated with the holidays can add stress for veterans, particularly if they are facing economic challenges. Gift-giving, travel expenses, and hosting obligations may become burdensome, causing anxiety and pressure to meet expectations. This financial strain can negatively impact their overall well-being and contribute to feelings of inadequacy or increased stress and anxiety.
Pressure to Conform
Veterans may feel pressure to conform to societal expectations during holidays, such as being cheerful or engaging in social activities. This pressure can be challenging for veterans coping with mental health issues, potentially leading to feelings of inadequacy or exacerbating symptoms. They may face social challenges when interacting with individuals who may not fully understand their military experiences or struggles. Adjusting to civilian social norms, engaging in small talk, or navigating social gatherings can be challenging for veterans, potentially leading to feelings of discomfort, isolation, or not entirely fitting in.
Positive Social Connections
On the other hand, holidays can provide opportunities for veterans to connect with supportive family members, friends, or fellow veterans. Positive social interactions and a sense of belonging can improve mental well-being and a sense of community for veterans. Social gatherings during the holidays can be particularly beneficial for veterans struggling with feelings of isolation and inadequacy.
Reflection and Memory Making
Holidays often prompt reflection and contemplation about life’s purpose and meaning. Veterans may find solace in this reflective time to process their experiences, find personal growth, and seek healing. While the holidays may be a stressful and busy time, there are also many benefits and opportunities for joy and celebration. Strengthening family bonds over the holidays can foster a sense of emotional healing and resilience for veterans and their loved ones.