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Commentary | Dec. 16, 2009

Stay stress free during the holidays

By Julie Couture Langley Family Advocacy Outreach Manager

The holidays are a time that many people look forward to, but the credit card bills, chaotic traveling, and the family members that make you glad you don't live near home can make you wonder what in the world you were thinking. As with everything, having a good plan can help you feel more like Buddy the Elf and less like Scrooge. Here's how.

First and most importantly, lower your expectations to a realistic level. I have a friend whose theory is that if you're standards are too high, drop them - to the floor. That might be a bit drastic for those of us who want to stay out of prison, but there is a way to find the happy medium. High expectations are a great thing when it comes to safety and security, but expecting your not-so-favorite sister-in-law to suddenly act classy is a set up for disappointment. We are who we are, and there are some people who simply refuse to change or modify what they do for others. This is typical of people who think the world revolves around them (I'm sure you do not fall into this category.) Expecting them to change is similar to expecting the price of gas to stabilize at $1.00 a gallon. Hope is a beautiful thing, and there is no harm in hoping that Attila the Hun will somehow see the error of her ways and find a personality. Delusion, however, will disappoint you. Hope for the best, but prepare for reality.

Preparing for reality, by the way, does not involve getting drunk. Sure, it may seem tempting, but there are better ways to lower your stress than by drinking excessively and potentially wrapping your car around a tree. Although they don't offer the drama that alcohol does, there are ways to remain calm and mature in those moments that try the patience of a saint. Try breathing, except this time, actually focus on it. Inhale for a count of 5, and then exhale for a count of 5. Use your diaphragm so that you can take deeper breaths. It might seem simple, but slowing your breathing will calm you down. The longer you breathe this way, the calmer you'll feel.

Preparing for reality does require focus on controlling those people or things you actually can control. This is quite simple because the only thing you have direct control over is you. Granted, you can push other people's buttons and influence them, but ultimately we all decide how to act - and react. You can ask someone to do something 50 times, but the odds of them following through the 51st time you ask are slim to none - and slim just left town. If what you're doing to get something done doesn't work, do something different. The beauty is that you may already know what to do. We've all had situations that have surprised us where we got the result we were looking for. Instead of chalking it up as a fluke, focus on what you did differently in that situation. Once you figure out what it is, you're free and clear. When that solution stops working, go back to the drawing board and try something else.

As for situations that are outside of our control, sometimes all you can do is ride things out and make the most of it. We all have memories of times that didn't go according to plan; ironically, they turn out ok, sometimes better than expected. Life is like that. So, if you're delivering meals to the homebound, and the frigid December wind takes the list out of your hands and blows it under a parked car, resulting in you getting on your hands and knees to retrieve it, look up. You might have just given your kids a huge laugh, which is better than listening to them gripe about how cold it is.

This leads to one of the best things you can do - keep your sense of humor. Sure, you might set the oven on fire temporarily, but once the fire's out and everyone's safe, laugh about it. Laughter lowers your blood pressure, clears your mind, and makes you happy. It's a win-win-win.

Laughing might not be your first response when dealing with insensitive people. There will always be people who say and do mean things. Petty people do petty things. Words hurt - sometimes more than being physically hit. The key thing to remember in the midst of all the drama is that people's actions are a reflection of who they are. Simply, their actions have everything to do with them, and nothing to do with you. Take the less-than-stellar sister-in-law, for example. She may place more value on material possessions than people and look down on you for not driving a luxury car. However, that's about her, not you. Remind yourself of that if you start to believe petty things people tell you.

Speaking of material possessions, Suze Orman would have a field day with this as it epitomizes her favorite topic - budgeting. Make a budget for everything about the holidays - presents, food, travel expenses, fire extinguishers - and stick to it. Be creative with presents if money isn't as plentiful as it was last year. Make presents, pick names out of a hat or offer to do things for others. It really is the thought that counts.

All of this may sound reasonable, but for some, there can be sadness to the holidays when the people we want to spend time with are far away, whether it's because of a deployment, death, physical or even emotional distance. One of the best things you can do is to allow yourself to be sad. It doesn't matter if it makes others uncomfortable - that's their issue. Feeling sad can be helpful, but if you're finding that you're staying in your pajamas all day with your good friends Ben and Jerry, then you've gotten all you can out of being sad and it's time to try a new tactic. Volunteering can do wonders. Sometimes when we're sad, all we can think about is the reason we feel this way. Helping other people can provide balance and allow us to see all the things we do have, whether it's your health, hair, or food to eat. If being around other people is too much, volunteer at an animal shelter. You can even go in your pajamas if you want. As long as you pay attention to them, the animals don't mind what you wear. Just be sure to leave Ben and Jerry at home.

If none of this seems to help, it might be time to call in the big guns. There are many agencies on base that can offer support, counseling, and guidance. The chaplains are the only ones on base that offer absolute confidentiality, so if you don't want anyone knowing that you were the one that set the oven on fire, see them. Mental health offers counseling to active duty and their family members. The Family Advocacy Program offers services to those Air Force families living with domestic violence, while the New Parent Support Program offers home visits and educational resources to those expecting a child or with a child up to the age of three. The Military Family Life Consultant sees people for 12 sessions, and they don't keep records. If you get in trouble with credit card debt or need help with a budget, Airman and Family Readiness Center offers financial counseling. Their numbers are listed below.

Regardless of the holiday you celebrate - Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Muharram, Festivus, or none at all - remember to keep things in perspective. There will be highs and lows as there are in everything, so enjoy the highs, breathe deeply through the lows and focus on the big picture. Who knows? The best part of the upcoming holiday season could be something you never could have imagined.

For help coping with holiday-related or any kind of stress, please call the following agencies:

Chaplains Office: 764-7847
Mental Health: 764-6840
Family Advocacy Program/New Parent Support Program: 764-2427
Military Family Life Consultant: 777-4172
Airman and Family Readiness Center: 764-3990