Athens, Ga. – Military couples’ individual health behaviors such as sleeping and eating are significantly linked to the couples’ perception of the family’s relational health, according to findings of a recent University of Georgia study.
The study showed that military couples who viewed their family system positively were healthier psychologically, suggesting that the family structure can exacerbate stress or promote resilience.
“Family functioning is important for a lot of health outcomes, not just being happy with those around you,” said the study’s lead author, Catherine O’Neal, an assistant research scientist in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “It has other lasting effects, and one of those is that it translates into people’s physical health for numerous reasons, including its impact on health behaviors.”
Military families experience a rather unique lifestyle including potentially stressful events that civilian families do not, such as relocation and deployment. Military families typically cope effectively with these unique challenges.
“Military families face normative stressors that all families experience coupled with the unique demands of military life,” said one of the study co-authors, Mallory Lucier-Greer, an assistant professor at Florida State University in the Department of Family and Child Sciences. “In an environment characterized by transition and relocation, the family is, perhaps, the most stable aspect of military life. Thus, family relational health is an important focus for understanding and enhancing soldier and family member well-being.”
The current findings are part of a larger study aimed at better understanding their coping and the effects of the military lifestyle.
On average, the active duty husbands and civilian wives in the study indicated high family relational health, and those who viewed their family’s relational health positively also reported better sleeping quality. This statistical relationship is meaningful because a number of scientific studies increasingly show the widespread effects that sleep problems have on individuals and their daily lives.
Those who indicated greater family relational health also reported more psychological resources, like low anxiety and few depressive symptoms. Additionally, civilian wives were seen to have a notable influence on their husbands’ health behaviors.
Due to relatively scarce family-level data on military families today, the findings strike down stigmas surrounding military families, and could impact how health intervention and prevention programs are conducted.
“I think one of our main messages that we’re always trying to share is that being in a military family is not inherently stressful,” O’Neal said. “Yes, there are some unique factors of it that can be stressors, but civilian families face stressors too – albeit, potentially different types of stressors.”
The findings also promote the idea that in order to change individuals’ health behaviors, understanding family functioning is an important part of successful intervention and prevention.
In other words, O’Neal said, you can tell someone to eat and sleep a certain way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the person will effectively implement that advice.
“Peoples’ ability to take that information and put it into action is dependent on their larger life context,” she said. “One part of that is their family functioning and another is their psychological resources.”
The next step of this research would be to focus on the well-being of adolescents within military families, rather than just spouses, O’Neal said.
The paper was published in the February 2016 issue of Military Medicine. The abstract can be found here.
Additional study authors are UGA’s Jay Mancini, Anne Montgomery Haltiwanger Distinguished Professor, and FACS doctoral student Bruce Ross and Anthony J. Ferraro of Florida State University.
UGA student Haley Lacuesta contributed to this report.
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