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Shaking off the winter blues

Every year thousands of Airmen spend their holiday season away from family members while stationed overseas. The winter season can inflict higher levels of stress and loneliness in an individual, making it an important time for Airmen to look out for one another. Kadena Air Base mental health and chapel services are available to provide service members and their families with mental and emotional support throughout the year. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class John Linzmeier)

Every year thousands of Airmen spend their holiday season away from family members while stationed overseas. The winter season can inflict higher levels of stress and loneliness in an individual, making it an important time for Airmen to look out for one another. Kadena Air Base mental health and chapel services are available to provide service members and their families with mental and emotional support throughout the year. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class John Linzmeier)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- The holidays are a time for family and friends to come together to celebrate traditions as they enter a new year, but that's not always the case when they're 10,000 miles away from home.

While the winter season bears long weekends and many forms of annual customs, it also carries other elements that can impair an Airman's wellbeing.

"The holidays can be tough for people over here because old issues with family members can be brought up and people are reminded that they're separated from them," said Capt. Christopher Howells, 18th Medical Operations Squadron director of psychological health. "It's not fun to be the only one left on the floor in your dorm or the only one in your family who is not able to make it back for the holidays."

Excessive shopping and other seasonal errands are at an all-time-high while exposure to sunlight is at an all-time-low, adding more stressors into the mix. Howells suggests that being too ambitious with expectations is another major contributor.

"We see these images of what we think the holidays are supposed to be," said Howells. "Whether it's from commercials, movies or other types of media; for a lot of people, it creates this perfect image about how things 'should be,' rather than how things are preferred to be."

All Airmen have made the commitment to place service before self, which can sometimes get in the way of year-end celebrations. Missed time with loved ones can generate a heap of self-guilt which can be difficult to shake off. 

"I hear from people from time-to-time saying 'it's my fault I'm away, I feel terrible,' when being home really isn't an option at that point in time," said Howells. "Beating oneself up over something that is not even realistic isn't worth it. Recognizing what's realistic can help take some of that pressure off and make it easier to forgive yourself."

Arguably, one of winter's most favored aspects is the extended weekends. Extra time off grants families more opportunities to bond, while others might see it as a prolonged void of solitude.

Howells said that one of the best ways to combat loneliness is through awareness.

"One way of being a good wingman is by checking in with people," he said. "If someone is alone or struggling over the holidays, you're not going to have a clue unless you talk to them. At least take the time to show you care, and you can still do that while still respecting their privacy."

Unusual changes in behavior, such as giving away possessions and a lack of enthusiasm toward activities in which one was previously interested can be a sign that something is wrong.  It's better to assume a wingman needs help, even if all you have to give is a small gesture of kindness.

"If you have a gut concern about somebody, don't dismiss it, look into it," said Howells. "It could mean a lot to the right person, if you were to say 'you know, I know we don't know each other very well, but I just wanna make sure you're doing all right.' Maybe they'll just brush it off but sometimes they won't. I think that's the bear minimum that we can do as wingmen."

Offerings of friendship from fellow wingmen aren't the only things that can help keep spirits afloat. The Kadena chapel services are available throughout the year to take care of emotional and spiritual needs. Chaplains provide their service in complete confidentiality and provide advice for any problems that may arise throughout an Airman's career.

Technology is also a useful tool that can provide support for friends and families who are worlds apart. Video phone calls are more accessible than ever and are the next closest thing to actually being present with a loved one. Technology provides unlimited resources for keeping in touch and attaining information but is best used in moderation.

"Spending the whole break at home killing time on the computer, that's not the kind of meaningful activity people need in order to recharge," said Howells.

"It's all about having good routines and making sure you're surrounding yourself with things that really make you happy; whether it's exercising, athletics, music, reading or going out for a day trip," he added. "Whatever it is, now is the opportunity to go out and do it."

It's never too early or too late to start making a plan make the most of winter festivities. By entering the winter break with an accepting mindset, a plan of action and keeping an eye out for fellow wingmen, this year's holiday experience can be approached with less anxiety and enjoyed with more ease.